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Saturday, April 12, 2008

What should kids learn from preschool?

If you haven't read my sidebar on my educational background, here it is again: I have a bachelor's degree in Human Development with an emphasis in Early Childhood Education. Basically I took a lot of classes about development and early learning. This prefaces the following (bear with me, it all leads up to the important stuff).

A month or two ago I visited a high school class that teaches a preschool class within the high school. Basically, with one 'head teacher' the high school kids teach the preschool kids, plan lessons, etc. After observing the preschool class I was asked to come into the high school class where the other rotation of high schoolers were preparing their lessons for the following week. I was asked questions and in return was able to ask questions.
My number one most important question... What is the most important thing for children in preschool to learn? The answer I was looking for... Social Skills.
I got a decent answer about a kid learning to function in their environment which goes under the umbrella of social skills.

A lot of parents these days want their children to come out of preschool reading and writing. Well, this month's Parent & Child Magazine had a little blip about this and I quote it here:

School Manners Matter

BE NICE. TAKE TURNS. LISTEN. Is your child being taught these social skills at school? It would be a wise idea, say the authors of the book The Social Skills Improvement System. Their theory: Knowing and practicing simple niceties increases academic learning because teachers have more time to devote to teaching. Here are the top 10 social skills that contribute to school success, based on the authors' survey of thousands of teachers:

1. Listening to others
2. Following the steps for each task
3. Following the rules
4. Ignoring distractions
5. Asking for help
6. Taking turns when you talk
7. Getting along with others
8. Staying calm with others
9. Being responsible for your behavior
10. Doing nice things for others

Basically, what this means is that children should enter kindergarten with these skills so that the teacher doesn't spend precious class time managing behavior. The teacher can then spend the class time teaching what needs to be taught in kindergarten such as phonics. What it boils down to is that these are the skills children should be learning in preschool, not reading, writing, and arithmetic. And, guess what, for the kids who learn that stuff in their preschool years, whether it be at home or preschool, their so called "smarts" all even out by first or second grade. In other words, children with the "educational advantage" end up on the same level as their peers in just a few short years.

So, what do you look for in a preschool? The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has come up with a list of criteria that their accredited programs have to pass. First of all, the program has to follow Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) to be accredited. This covers a lot of stuff, but mainly, the program is centered around the children, or child-centered. This means that the lessons and activities implemented in the classroom are age-appropriate. Basically, what the kids are learning is applicable to their lives. For example, you won't see the three year olds learning about planets because they can't relate to planets. You may however see them learning about earth because they live on earth and touch, smell, see, feel, and taste things on the earth every day. Being DAP also means that teachers are aware of each individual child's skills and abilities and they plan lessons to incorporate ways to build on those skills and learn new ones. Another accreditation requirement is that programs have a low teacher to child ratio. This means that for every let's say 4 kids, there is 1 teacher. The fewer kids per teacher means that each child receives more one on one time with an adult. This also means that with more adults in the classroom, children have more opportunities to learn and explore because so many early childhood activities require adult supervision but one teacher can only do so much, with more teachers it's possible to do more each day. There is a lot that goes into being accredited by the NAEYC, but these are the most important to me in choosing a preschool.

The NAEYC has a wealth of information available for parents as well a list of accredited programs in your area. If you want more information about choosing a preschool, click on their "families" link. They also have a links to a couple dozen research reports about early childhood education that are very helpful in looking at these kinds of issues. Here is a link to a brochure put out by the NAEYC about the 10 accreditation standards if you want more information on those.

Some books on the subject that I recommend reading include:

Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk by David Elkind (Anything by him is GREAT!)
The Power of Play by David Elkind
Theories of Childhood: an Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget, & Vigotsky by Carol Mooney
Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn --Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hersh-Pasek

I would also like to note here that I find it interesting how many parents rush out and buy pregnancy books when they get their first positive result but how those same parents don't read as enthusiastically about their child's development or behavior as they get older. Each stage of development is different and each child born into a family is different. To make an educated decision about finding a preschool worthy of their child, parents need a solid understanding of child development so they can understand the importance of the DAP guidelines and how the preschool could affect their child and their learning. That is why I urge parents to read these amazing books.

It is because I understand child development that I can say children need play, they learn through play, "play is a child's work" in the words of Maria Montessori. Early childhood is the only time in a person's life where play is critical and the only time they are allowed to do it. As soon as they start elementary school their lives become a daily rotation of school, homework, extracurriculars, and, if there's time, play. Through play children can act out their feelings, such as when they play house and punish others or role play to be a mom or dad. Through fantasy play children become super heros or pirates, fairies or princesses. Imaginative play and creativity involves higher thinking and is related to high intelligence. For some children preschool may be the only interaction children have with peers and they should use that time to role play and make friends in the process. It is also through play that children develop some of the social skills mentioned earlier.

Preschool is a great time for our kids, it's so fun to watch them learn and make friends. Take the time to research a school and make an educated decision on where to send your child. A child's first memory of school, whether good or bad, stays with them forever and their attitude toward school is formed early on. If you want more information, or want recommendations to my top 5 picks in Salt Lake, email me.

I would love to hear your feedback (positive or negative), so come out of the woodwork and comment! I go to great lengths for these posts sometimes (I've pulled out several books tonight to reference) and it's hard not to get feedback and see comments. I know you're out there, I see my counter at the bottom of the page going up. You are more than welcome to remain anonymous or just give a first name or initial, just please leave a comment once in awhile, it will pay off soon in a give away I'll be doing. Thanks for reading!


Denise said...

I totally agree with you!
It is sad that more and more Montessori school focus more on academic trail instead of emphasing on the "play" perspective.

The Toy Snob said...

Thanks to Denise for commenting! I definitely agree. Montessori puts a lot of focus on academia and actually discourages play and imagination, you won't see a dramatic play area in a Montessori preschool. I do however think there are some useful things we can learn from Montessori practices, but that's a whole other post. Thanks again, Denise!

irishleigh86 said...

I am an Infant teacher at an NAEYC center and I have worked alot in the toddlers and some in the preschool and as a mom of a preschooler I get to see what goes on there. I still think this whole world is way to focused on everybody getting ahead. SO what if my 4 yr old can only recognize letter and not sound them all out. Shes 4! Let her play. I remember being the only one that could read in my kindergarten class and now almost all of the kids are reading by then. I think theyre trying to make them grow up to fast, but also the same people I see not having their children do chores and such, so theyre not learning the responsibilities along with the social skills. Sorry if none of this made sense, Im exhausted. &7 screaming babies all day, need I say more?!

The Toy Snob said...

Amanda, your program looks great, I took the liberty of checking out the website. Maybe my kids could go there when we come out for grad school. You made very good points in your comment, I also think academics has been pushed down younger and younger lately. On a personal note, it was great talking to the rest of the fam last night, sorry we missed you. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I do appreciate each one, and have read the book Buy, Buy Baby from your blog recommendation. It totally changed how I feel each time I walk into a Barnes and Noble.
Sadly, the toy industry feeds into and capitalizes on every parent's desire for a smart child by marketing totally inappropriate videos and toys from infancy on. A family member of ours was so pleased with giving my 13 month old son a talking, singing, light-up nursery rhyme "book" for Christmas. This is the worst excuse for a toy that I have ever seen. When my son is through "interacting" with it, it continues to repeat sounds and songs at 15 second intervals as if to lure the child back. This toy is evil! My son and I have such a connective, rich, and meaningful experience together everyday reading nursery rhymes from a traditional book without any of the noise.
It is no wonder that parents who buy into these early learning toys expect preschools to emphasize academics. Interestingly, I learned from a toy-related conversation with this family member that it had never occurred to her that children might enjoy (let alone tremendously benefit) from playing with blocks. And she has been in the education profession (albeit not early childhood) for 30 years.
I also think the whole notion of "play" is probably changing. So even if preschools tout a play-based philosophy, it definitely deserves checking into.
Thanks again for the post and for further recommended reading!

The Toy Snob said...

I have to admit (with a cringe) that I am guilty of purchasing that same electronic nursery rhyme book for my (at the time) 7 month old niece. This, of course, was before I had kids of my own and became The Toy Snob that I am today.

And, you're right...The notion of play is changing. Make sure that the preschool you're considering has the same views on play as you do.

The Toy Snob said...

P.S. I am so glad to hear that you read a book I recommended! It definitely changes your perspective, huh?

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TinaC said...

Very interesting! I'm going to pass your blog on to all my mom friends. I have a two year old daughter and this is a very timely subject, and I agree with your thoughts completely. I had no idea what preschool is supposed to be, and now I have some much needed guidelines...thank you!
I am so happy my daughter would rather spend time playing hide and seek or nurturing her baby dolls than watching lights and bells and whistles.

Julia said...

Thanks for the useful info. That brings another question, what's the best age to start preschool? Would like to hear what people think.

Ali Flegal said...

You're brilliant. I appreciate all of these write ups. Really, i find myself nodding in agreement. You need a larger platform to be heard.

Off topic, Eliza's b-day is coming up and I want to get her a tricycle/bike type thing. Nothing motorized, obviously... something sturdy, safe... any ideas?

You're the best.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I chanced upon this post and while I agree with many things (I'm a big fan of Einstein never used Flashcards), after one year of preschool, I concluded that the wide range of verbal/cognitive abilities among preschoolers can be a barrier to play. It's not just a matter of putting a group of kids together and letting them play. Will they even out in 2 or 3 years' time? Maybe, I don't know. Give me another few years. But in the meantime, what I do like about the Montessori approach is the mixed age thing. That together with more imaginative play (akin to waldorf) would be ideal i think.