Kids Are Never Too Little to Learn

What should learning look like for preschoolers? Fewer questions trigger more passionate responses from parents and early childhood educators. It’s understandable; these are our babies. Everybody wants to get it right.

The headline of a recent New York Times article captures the basic debate succinctly: “Free play or flashcards?” The story focuses on a new study of early childhood education that finds students benefit when their preschools show a sustained focus on language, pre-literacy, and math concepts. They benefit quite a bit, in fact, and the benefits persist through at least the end of kindergarten. This, in turn, has provoked anxiety among some parents and educators that preschools will start embracing a more conventionally academic approach to learning — less time at play kitchens and more at desks.

But the problem, as the study shows, is not that we have too many preschools turning kids into soulless flashcard machines. The problem is we have too many that don’t help them learn much at all.

New Orleans is a good example. The State of Louisiana sends observers into preschools that receive public funding. The observers rate classrooms on three dimensions: Emotional Support, Classroom Organization, and Instructional Support.

When compared to state averages, publicly funded early childhood centers in New Orleans do reasonably well on Emotional Support and Classroom Organization. Their average score from observers is “Proficient.” But they do quite poorly on Instructional Support. Observers are less likely to see teachers spending time on the types of cognitive activities that researchers have found to be very important. Across 153 sites, the average Orleans Parish score for Instructional Support was 2.79, which falls in the “Unsatisfactory” range, the lowest of four categories the state uses.

The consequences of weak instruction in preschool are evident in kindergarten. In classroom visits, I often see students struggle to identify letters and the sounds they make. Many do not know how to hold a pencil or write their names. They are not accustomed to answering open-ended questions.

We need to reject the false choice between learning and fun. Learning is not inherently boring, rote, or restrictive. Kids don’t cease to be free when they are asked to learn something, and any good preschool teacher knows how to combine learning and play seamlessly. When it is done well, learning itself is liberating, exciting, and energizing. That’s what a good preschool does and what a good elementary school does.

My own kids were lucky to have a preschool experience like that a few years ago. Their teachers tracked each child’s progress toward very clear cognitive milestones. When my wife and I went in for conferences, they would pull out a thick folder full of work and art samples, skill inventories they took over the course of the year, and detailed notes. They were building on-ramps for literacy and numeracy. Students went off to kindergarten prepared to thrive. And yet, the day was full of warmth, play, discovery, and fun. Not a flashcard in sight. It was a preschool, not an elementary school. A good preschool. The kind that every family deserves.

There is an opportunity here. We all want to see more success for low income students in school. One of the most promising pathways is ensuring greater access to high quality preschool programs that have rich academic components. Research is telling us it makes a difference. My own eyes tell me the same. It’s a mistake to view preschool as merely childcare or to see four year-olds as too young to learn. Their minds are abuzz. So let’s stop trying to separate learning and fun. Instead, let’s send a different message as they begin their school experience: that learning is curiosity and wonder and exploration—all the things that come naturally to them.

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