October - November 2007

Academics over play, Even at the pre-k level?

This warrants some serious thought. How young should we start our children on the path to academic success? More and more we are seeing the push for children to be academically prepared for pre-school. It makes you wonder if the next big thing will be to find a way to project images of the alphabet and numbers 1-100 into the womb so that children have a good head start on their academic career before they are even born.

What about the type of preschool we send our children to? Should we choose based on academic or play value? It has been said that the No Child Left Behind Act plays the bigger part in driving parents to choose academics. Or does the reason some parents feel the need to choose an academic over a play-based preschool come down to parents not teaching enough and expecting teachers to take over? That may be so in some cases. Are teachers supposed to take over, or are they meant to be a resource (a help) to parents in educating their children?

It's a valid debate. Some in our society feel compelled to start children in sports at younger ages, to keep up with whoever decided to do that first to accelerate the child's skills. It has reached that point with educating our children as well. Nobody wants to come in second when it comes to sports and educational excellence today.

Is there not a bit of risk in pushing our children so young? Of course, we aren't animals, but consider the analogy of the racehorse trainer compared to the educator. The trainer has to be careful how young he starts to train a colt. There is an actual physical risk to the animal if ridden too early, but he certainly wants to get started as quickly as possible. The same has been said of teaching the vast majority of children about things such as math concepts before they reach the age of reason, which is about age 5 or 6. Most can't fully grasp the concept of interval units, or a series of relationships in letters and numbers. It is noted by David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Power of Play, that we do run the risk of actually killing the motivation for learning, respecting teachers and schooling in general when starting too early with these concepts.

Shouldn't we also be concerned about the physical detriments to our children by not allowing them free play time? They need to run, jump, and climb to develop properly. They also need the chance to unlock their imaginations using play. 

Developmental psychologist and education researcher Rebecca Marcon of the University of North Florida published a study in Developmental Psychology clear back in 1999, of 721 four-year-olds from play-based, academic, and middle-of-the-road programs not following either path. It followed the children's self-help, social, language, motor, and adaptive development and basic skills as well. The study showed that children in play-based programs exhibited stronger academic performance, in all areas studied, compared with children who had been in more academically based or middle-of-the-road programs.

If studies such as this exhibited these results back then, shouldn't these same results ring true?