Nothing abstract about the lessons of play By Wendy Lecker

Last week, The New York Times unwittingly provided an example of how bad education policy is made. A front-page article trumpeted “Free play or flashcards? A new study nods to more rigorous preschools.”

The study the article featured purportedly proved that frequent, direct instruction of “academic” content in preschool yielded more “cognitive gains” than play-based preschool. The study even contended that preschools that do not engage in enough direct academic instruction “may be doing their young charges a disservice.” The study’s author, Bruce Fuller, denigrated play, declaring that “(s)imply dressing up like a firefighter or building an exquisite Lego edifice may not be enough.”

However, Fuller’s study did not prove that “academically oriented” preschools help children learn better.

The study showed simply that children who were exposed to instruction regarding phonics, simple writing and counting manipulatives frequently in preschool, and then were tested on these discrete skills near the beginning of kindergarten, did better on those tests than children who were not exposed at all or as frequently to this instruction.

Of course if one instructs a child on something and tests her on it soon after, she will perform better on that test than a child who did not receive that instruction.

Does this obvious observation prove that “academic” preschool helps children learn better? No — as the authors themselves admit. They state that they did not follow children in this study past kindergarten, even though they acknowledge that previous preschool studies find that many effects fade by fifth grade.

To the contrary, decades of research demonstrate that an emphasis on play in the early years provides long-lasting academic and social benefits.

Young children’s brains are not ready for the abstract thinking that direct instruction of “academic” content requires. Children use play to establish the foundation for abstract learning. For example, socio-dramatic play enables children to understand sequencing essential to math and reading. Building with blocks enables children to understand that objects can represent other objects, so later they can comprehend that lines represent letters and words represent ideas. Contrary to the claims in The New York Times article, play is learning for young children.

Play builds a strong foundation for acquiring academic skills. As I have written (, children who learn to read at age seven, having engaged in play-based learning before, have better comprehension in middle school than those who learned to read at five.

The Fuller study did not follow the children who engaged in more play-based activities to test them on those math and literacy concepts, once they learned them at a developmentally-appropriate age. It is entirely possible that the children in Fuller’s study who did not score well at age five on concepts to which they were not exposed in preschool would, at a later age, outscore those children from “academically-oriented” preschools; precisely because they engaged in more play-based learning in their early years.

Forcing children to engage in age-inappropriate tasks in preschool instead of play creates a stressful environment that undermines learning and social development. Children who experience the “toxic stress” associated with living in poverty need play to develop crucial executive function and self-regulation skills, and to learn to form positive relationships. A curriculum comparison study that followed children to age 23 found that, as they grew, children who had direct instruction in preschool engaged in more misconduct than those who had more play-based curricula.

The Fuller study noted in passing that preschools serving advantaged children have more play-based activities than those serving poor children. In 2014, I wrote about the detrimental effects of making kindergarten the new first grade ( Low-income children suffered the most, enduring more age-inappropriate instruction and being starved of a rich curriculum. Now The New York Times gives top billing to an inconclusive study advocating introducing developmentally inappropriate practices even earlier.

Public funding for preschool, especially for disadvantaged students, is gaining traction nationwide. Is it coincidental that an article pushing “academic” preschool, which produces immediate quantifiable, though questionable, results, without regard to long-term effects, appears on the front page of a national newspaper now?

Policy makers force many unproven and disproven reforms on schools educating our most vulnerable. As a condition of basic funding, they demand concrete results, like standardized test scores, that are often irrelevant to important educational and life outcomes; and that often force schools to deprive poor children of the types of learning that are most important in life.

Why, when it comes to poor kids, do we not have any stake in long-term outcomes?

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