Savvy parents of preschool age children consider a myriad of choices, philosophies, and approaches to teaching and learning. They often conduct online searches and with a click of a button they open the door to an onslaught of articles, research, and opinions.
Armed with spreadsheets and checklists, preschool parents tour facilities noting facts and figures associated with things such as cost, location, schedule, accreditation, teacher credentials, safety, and discipline. However, once those criteria are satisfied, parents look deeper and begin thinking about fit. One question that seems to have tireless momentum is, “should I choose a play-based or academic preschool program for my child.”
I believe that part of academic vs. play-based debate comes from terms themselves. Academic seems to send a rigid message of children sitting at desks doing worksheets while a teacher threatens them to be quiet while play-based seems to send the opposite message and many envision an unstructured free-for-all classroom that contains no learning and often little discipline. Neither are true – really. And, formal, agreed upon definitions of each style do not exist. What we do know is that current research in education points towards a middle ground.
If we begin with the clear understanding that children do not come “one size fits all”, it would thus follow suit that a preschool program shouldn’t either. What methodology then is the ‘one size meets all’ solution? Arguably the best is a combination of both developmentally appropriate academic learning/skills and play referred to as “playful learning.” In her book, The Mandate for Playful Learning, Kathy Hirsh-Paseck and her colleagues, encourage that educators find the middle ground. Specifically, she urges early childhood educators to seek teaching strategies such as scaffolding guided play and to consider the roles of teacher and child and of play and instruction complex and intentional ways.
Ann S. Epstein, author of The Intentional Teacher, Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning, defines intentional teaching as “planful, thoughtful, and purposeful.” Epstein goes on to explain that “intentional teachers use their knowledge, judgment, and expertise to organize experiences for children… and act with specific outcomes or goals in mind for all domains of children’s development and learning.” In Boulder Country Day’s preschool program, our teachers bring to life Epstein’s words. One might examine, for example, a typical classroom cooking project and see children happily chatting as the mix, measure, and stir – a perfect example of well-planned and thoughtful learning experience. On the surface the experience is clearly fun and engaging. A closer look reveals that the teacher carefully planned the experience to include math concepts such as part-whole relationships, one-to-one correspondence, and counting; science concepts such as cause and effect and examining the properties of solids vs. liquids; reading/writing by using recipe cards that help children to build understanding of print and connections between the spoken word and the written word; and social/emotional skills that promote self-help skills, self-esteem, confidence, and competence.
So as an educator with 20+ years of experience, here are my thoughts… 1) Let’s be sure that preschool remains fun and that learning remain the central premise – yes, we can achieve both! 2) Avoid the “mompetition” of what others parents say or do and choose a preschool program that feels right for you and your family and feels like the best fit for your child 3) Be prepared to consider the positives and negatives to both academic and play based preschools, look for and ask for evidence of intentional teaching and playful learning, and know that ultimately what is most important are the needs of each individual child.Learn about BCD's Preschool program