A recent article in Scientific American by Paul Tullis looks at how pre-schools have been using more and more time for directed study and lectures and less and less time for what preschoolers typically do—play. The result, according to developmental psychologists, is disastrous. A lack of play can result in children’s failure to develop skills that will help them in later academic life. Here’s why pre-schools are cutting time on the playground for time in the classroom and how less play affects children’s minds.
Why Pre-Schoolers have Less Time for Play
The new pre-school has been evolving over time, but there is no doubt that it’s very different from the kind most parents and grandparents of current pre-school students attended. Rather than allow kids to engage in self-directed play, preschools, under pressure to prepare kids for standardized tests, including those mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, are turning to planned lessons and even lectures. There is also a mistaken belief that an early emphasis on academics will lead to creating better students down the road. In other words, if older kids engage in goal-directed academics, parents and teachers erroneously believe that younger students who carry out this type of learning will be better prepared for more formal academics.
There is also pressure from parents, who believe that their children benefit from direct instruction and early formal academic lessons. The competition for pre-schools in cities such as New York is so fierce that parents are apt to believe that securing the right kindergarten place for their children will lead them to a coveted place at a prestigious university. As a result, parents and teachers have begun to teach pre-school and kindergarten children as if they were in a more advanced grade, but these teachers may be unwittingly depriving children of the experiences they need to be a great thinker—and student—later on.
Why Play is So Vital to Children’s Learning
As Tullis discusses in his article, children need to play to learn, and time spent on direct instruction may create weaker thinkers. Experts, including top neuropsychologists, have studied young children and determined that they simply aren’t ready for goal-directed learning. Instead, children learn more and expand their minds when they are allowed to simply play. In one study, children who were shown how to make a toy squeak by an instructor could only produce this function of the toy, while children who were allowed to explore the toy on their own were able to exploit it to carry out a number of functions. Experts concluded from this study that children learn more and exercise their mind to a greater extent when they are allowed independence and the ability to discover things on their own.
The ability and independence to play is so important that scientists have determined that students who don’t “just play” are at a disadvantage. Children of pre-school and kindergarten age need to play and use their body physically to discover realities about the way the world works. Children who are pushed to read at an early age, for example, may forfeit time spent playing, and, as a result, their learning in the long term may suffer. Instead, it is normal for children to learn to read, according to experts, at any age from three to seven. Children who are pushed too early to accomplish tasks that their brains imply aren’t able to handle yet may experience frustration that can eventually lead to stress and anxiety. There is no doubt that children who are continually asked to do work they aren’t ready for will become averse to it, and they run the risk of being permanently turned off to learning. The result of expecting kids to function like high school students when they are only in pre-school may have a paradoxical effect—rather than inspire children to be life-long learners and great students, it may result in their being frustrated and deprived of the fun and intellectually rich moments of childhood playtime.