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Preschool changes behaviour, not the brain

Preschool changes behaviour, not the brainWhat is the value of preschool? We know that preschool is meant to prepare young children for kindergarten. But how does preschool actually prepare children for everyday schooling and beyond?

These are questions that we, as parents, may briefly consider as we enroll our children in their first preschool. They are also questions that researchers have been examining for at least 30 years. Much of this research was recently summarized in an intriguing article entitled, “How Preschool Changes the Brain.” The article reviews several classic studies conducted over the past 30+ years investigating the long-terms effects of early childhood education programs on children’s academic and career outcomes. As you might have expected, children who attend preschool (especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds) were more likely to graduate from high school, get better grades, stay married, and less likely to get arrested.

Life skills

Your first reaction to these findings might be to assume that preschool makes these children smarter. Maybe all the exposure to books, learning games, etc. really increases their intelligence. However, when you look closer at the findings, you see that the children’s IQ scores remain relatively stable over time. Some kids’ IQ may increase slightly in the years immediately following preschool but usually stabilizes near its original level later in life. It turns out that what preschool really does is teach the life skills that are often much more important than IQ in determining one’s success in life–skills like self-control, persistence and self-discipline. So, after reading that, I felt the title of this article should be something like, “How Preschool Changes Behaviour, not the Brain.”

Unfortunately, the real irony is that although we know that the “magic” of preschool is in the non-cognitive skills (e.g. self-control, persistence, social interaction) that children learn, preschools are becoming increasingly academic focused. Just the skills that preschool is meant to help kids learn are being overtaken by an emphasis on letter sounds, reading preparation, and math drills. The primary way preschoolers learn the non-cognitive skills that will help them the rest of their lives is through one simple activity—play. Free play that is guided by adults, but not controlled by adults, is the primary work of early childhood (or should be).

Guided play is key

On the face of it, many parents might have a tendency to gravitate towards the “academic” preschool model. Isn’t this the best way to prepare my child for the school environment he will face in the future? Isn’t a high-stakes academic environment what he/she will experience once they enter formal schooling? And herein lies the crux of this issue (in my mind). We, as parents, may feel that academic rigor is the definition of “quality” in K-12 education and so it must be the same for preschools. If we look at the research in early childhood education, however, we find this is not necessarily the case.

A quick review of the academic research on this topic reveals that this recent emphasis on “academically rigorous” preschools may, in fact, be undermining youngsters’ ability to learn and be creative. Several recent studies have compared young children’s learning when provided either (1) direct instruction about a toy from a teacher, or (2) time to explore a toy on their own with little adult instruction. The results were quite clear: preschoolers who were “taught” how to use a toy by a teacher, did use the toy as instructed; but that’s all they did. They did not try to find any other features of the toy that the teacher did not explain to them and they did not try to use the toy in new ways. By contrast, the preschoolers who were given no direct instruction on the toy, they found new features of the toy and new ways of playing with the toy that the direct instruction group never noticed. So it seems that preschoolers do learn from direct instruction, but they are not as creative or flexible in their learning as when they are just left alone to learn by playing.

This research points to a key aspect of child development that may not be readily apparent: young children do not learn the same way adults learn. As adults, when we learn a new task, most often we are given direct instruction from someone else or perhaps we read instructions from a manual. Young children, on the other hand, do not learn most effectively this way. Their form of learning is what psychologist Alison Gopnik calls “guided discovery.” This involves the child exploring an object or task in their own way while watching an adult or older child perform the task. The key difference, it seems, is that the child is not directly instructed on how to use an object or perform a task; they simply figure it out through their own exploration (i.e. play).

Of course, as children get older there is a need for direct instruction. Skills like reading and writing would be difficult, if not impossible to learn through a “guided discovery” type of learning. However, trying to provide academic instruction at the preschool age is essentially putting the cart before the horse. Preschoolers are still in the discovery stage; they are not yet ready for routinised learning.

The long-term view

In fact, this type of academic drilling may undermine their interest in learning all together.  The tricky part of this equation, however, is that kids in “academic” preschools may in fact learn their ABC’s sooner and be able to recite memorized information back to adults on cue. This is appealing to us adults. I admit, the thought of seeing my toddler name numbers, letters, and even phonic sounds seems exciting. What research is beginning to show us, however, is that this immediate “payoff” in the form of routinized learning may come at the expense of a real interest and love of learning. A study by researchers at the University of North Florida showed just this. They followed 160 children who experienced three different types of preschool settings: child-initiated (e.g. play-based), academically directed, or a combination of the two. These children were followed and their academic performance tracked until fourth grade. The results showed very few differences in the children’s school performance in early elementary school. By the time the children reached fourth grade, however, the children who attended the academic-focused preschool showed a gradual decline in academic performance (i.e. grades). Of course, this is only one study, but research of this type implies that children pushed into academics too soon may miss out on a more integrative, curiosity-driven approach to learning that they will need later in life.

Early childhood is a brief, unique moment in our children’s lives when they are open to learning, creativity and relationships. Play helps them make the most of this time. Let’s enjoy it and treasure it for all its worth. As the creator of kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, said “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”


About the Author:

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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