Why play is vital in preschool: DEY’s response to the New York Times report supporting flash cards over free play

by DEY

DEY Senior Advisor and Wheelock College professor, Dr. Diane Levin, writes DEY’s responseDEY Senior Advisor and Wheelock College professor, Dr. Diane Levin, writes DEY’s response: At Defending the Early Years (DEY) we work to promote appropriate educational practice in early childhood. Dana Goldstein’s May 30th article, “Free Play or Flashcards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools” (NY Times, 5/30/17) not only left us puzzled but raised several important questions.

Should a study that found a 2½-month gain in academic skills when taught in preschool influence early childhood policy and practice? How can one argue for giving up big chunks of playtime for academic teaching to make such minimal gains in academic performance—with little consideration of what other areas might have lost out because of the focus on academic skills?  Studies of Head Start programs that taught academic skills to preschoolers in the 1960’s and 1970’s found that gains made in academic performance over children in more play-based Head Start programs were generally gone by second grade (i.e., “fade out effect,” as mentioned in the article).  Furthermore, research in many European countries, which do not start formal reading instruction until age seven, shows that starting formal teaching of reading earlier has little benefit.

Play-based early childhood programs are all-too-often misunderstood.  Just having play in a preschool is not enough, as all play is not the same.  When a child dabbles from one activity to another, tries out one material and then the next, and/or does the same activity day-after-day, this is not quality play or, necessarily, even play.  And, even when a child does become more fully engaged in an activity that develops over time and is meaningful play, teachers have a vital role facilitating the play to help the child take it further.  The teacher also makes decisions about how to integrate more formal early literacy and math skills into the play—for instance, by helping a child dictate stories about his painting and pointing out some of the key words and letters involved, etc.   The teacher can then help the child “read” the story at a class meeting.  With block building, the teacher and child might discuss shapes, as she tries to find the right shape for her structure.

This kind of intentional teacher-facilitated learning through play contributes to the many foundational skills children need for later school success, including self-regulation, social skills, creativity, original thinking, oral language development, eye-hand coordination, pre-literacy and math skills, and positive attitudes toward problem solving.  And, in the long run, these foundational skills are much more important for how children will feel about and perform later in school than the 2½ months gain they might obtain from the early skill instruction received in preschool, as reported in the New York Times article.

Rather than debating over free play versus flashcards, perhaps we should be asking the bigger questions:

  1. Why are years of research on the benefits of quality play in preschool programs so often ignored?
  2. Why is it assumed that academic skills are so important to emphasize in preschool rather than a focus on the development of the “whole child” and foundational skills that prepare children for school success in the later years?
  3. Why are play and learning so often treated as if they are dichotomous, as they seem to be in this report?


Comments 0

  1. What’s happened to us? How did we sink into such an ugly circumstance that we dare use words like “grit and rigor” in the same sentence as “child”?
    Who thought that was a good idea? And who permissioned that so-called “good idea” to become part of childhood education?
    Childhood has no reality. It’s not supposed to.
    Childhood is all about fantabulous fabrications, amusing imaginings, and daring daydreams.
    Those are real jobs. Done by real children.
    And not one of them has a whiff of rigor … or an ounce of grit. Nor should they because these are the preoccupations childhood. And the job descriptions include grins and giggles and tons of teehee.
    Why is it that we never know the names of these dark childhood exterminators? These ghosty-theoreticians who seem obsessed with hardship and tenacity and guts … for children not even 100 months old? Let’s examine that sad psychosis.
    And then let’s ask why they live in some peculiar shadowland … and never stand before real-deal educators and defend their dogmatic presumptions on early education? Why aren’t they identified … and ever confronted?
    Who are these educational Scrooges anyway?
    It’s stunning to have to defend recess … and play … and fun. Astonishing to have to champion fantasies and whimsy as healthy and necessary exercises for a brand new mind.
    This manic era of reform seems in an absolute rush to dispose of every phase of childhood as hurriedly as possible. And yet, too few ever learn the identities of those who advocate for this sick-sad competition.
    These freaky theories just appear … and are shoved into practice as if they are infallible. And it’s not just about recess.
    Testing the new pedagogical god. Close reading has made reading a special torture … and sabotaged joyful reading for an entire generation. Unrestrained technology is frankensteining classrooms into learning centers offering kiosk-educations from touch-screens that will supply the finger-pointer with all they need to succeed in a life of rich monotony.
    And at every level, parents will lose more and more control of their children. And that is all by design because the very last thing these new educational absolutists want is any mother or father acting as though they have any regency at all over their own child’s education.
    Orwell yourself and come to terms with what sits on the horizon of touch-screen scholarship. Huxley yourself into the world where children will have been programmed and plugged into lifetime situations based not on their passions but on some algorithmic prescription burped out by some electronic-ouija-motherboard.
    And childhood is the greatest casualty of all. An extraordinarily special part of life now routinely smothered by educational frauds who have flimflammed an entire profession with dangerous nonsense.
    How did this happen … and why did we let it happen? And how we will repair these children?
    Denis Ian