Using Play to Boost Academic Skills

The case for play in early childhood gets stronger and stronger every day. The more we learn about how children grow and develop, the more we see that children need to play to flourish- socially, emotionally AND academically.

A recent article in Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Let Preschoolers Play! says:

a growing body of research supports the very real benefits of exploratory and playful learning experiences. A 2007 study published in Science evaluated a play-based program, Tools of the Mind, against a non-play-based one. After two years in the play-oriented classrooms, children scored better on self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The self-control kids learn through interacting and playing with others has an academic payoff, too; it’s more strongly correlated with future academic success than either IQ or early reading and math skills.

The article goes on to explain that one of the problems with teaching preschoolers in the way elementary school students are traditionally taught is that learning through trial and error is eliminated. Instead children are “fast tracked” by adults to learn basic skills. The result is limited problem solving skills and diminished creativity. The fact that these are essential skills for our children to be competitive in the business world of the 21st century should have parents and the larger community very worried!

It’s an easy fix. Let young children learn through play and hands-on experimenting!

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More Law Enforcment Officers Stand Up for Preschool

A coalition of law enforcement officials across Illinois are urging their state’s lawmakers to invest in the state’s early childhood program. They are not alone. In Santa Fe, NM county sheriffs offered to cut their budgets if it meant putting more money into quality preschool programs. In Scranton, PA, a local police chief stated, “Making sure at-risk children have access to quality pre-kindergarten programs is one of the most important steps we can take to cut future crime by keeping kids from becoming criminals.” The sentiment is shared by members of the law enforcement community across the country. An article from Chicago’s Medill Reports explains why:

One study in the report followed two groups of at-risk 3- and 4-year-old students in Michigan starting in 1962. One group attended a high-quality preschool program and the other did not. The students who did not attend the school were five times more likely than the other students to be chronic offenders. By the age of 40, the people who had not attended the program were twice as likely to have been arrested for violent crimes.

Lawmakers and budget officers looking for a long term solution to state and local budget issues should give the idea of investing in preschool a serious look.

Invest in Early Ed and Care- The Video

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This video is worth so much more! Through the voices of 4 children (an infant – 4 years old) we hear and see the effects of poverty and a lack of a positive environment in the early years. The video clip is targeted to New Mexico legislators, but the facts and statistics presented apply to every community across the country. We can invest in children and save money. It’s a win-win!

New Data Supports “Old-Style” Kindergarten

Today, kindergarten looks a lot like any other elementary school classroom. Dramatic play and block building have been replaced by desks and writing assignments. Supporters of this academic focus in kindergarten say that today’s kindergarteners are smarter then previous generations of 5 and 6 year olds. They are ready for these challenges and we need to prepare them to be competitive in first grade.

A recent study put out by the Gisselle Institute at Yale University challenges this idea. Researchers looked at the developmental and cognitive abilities of over 1,200 children ages 3-6 in 56 public and private schools across the country. They found that children have not gotten smarter. A child today follows the same path of learning and development as their parents and grandparents did. Developmental milestones continue to be reached at roughly the same time.

So why do today’s young children seem so smart? It may be a question of training vs. learning. A three year old can be trained to write her name, but it is unlikely that she understands the sounds that the letters make and how these sounds blend together to form words. Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gisselle Institute provides this example:

children must be able to see and understand the oblique line in a triangle to recognize some letters in the alphabet. Until children can draw a triangle they cannot perceive angled lines in, say, the letter “K,” nor can they write it, or recognize it when printed in different fonts.

Drawing a triangle is a developmental milestone usually attained by children around age 5 and a half.  Just like you can’t make an infant walk before he is ready, you can’t make a child read, understand numbers or add before she is ready. The result is a frustrated teacher and a child with a lessened sense of self-worth.

What children need is time. Time to manipulate objects to further their understanding of numbers and shapes, time to engage in meaningful conversations that expand their awareness of language. And because every child develops at his or her own pace, they need time to explore concepts at their level of development. Schools need to be well-versed in healthy child development, support children at their unique level and communicate this information to parents.

This study is a wonderful resource for those looking for data to support a more play-based kindergarten curriculum. Learn more about it, and the insights of others in the field, in this article from the Harvard Education Letter.

Staff Collaboration: Every School’s Secret Treasure

In schools across the country there are educators full of wisdom, experience, new ideas and unique personal skills. We all have wonderful ideas and information to share. We all love helping and we’re pretty good at being supportive (that’s a big reason why we chose this field). Yet most teachers are very isolated in their classrooms or only have opportunities to communicate with the other teachers or support staff within the same age-level group.

How well is your school using the resources you have in your own teachers? Many schools encourage mentor relationships between new and experienced teachers, but do teachers have an opportunity to come together as a school and share issues and ideas? Do you have a forum for group brainstorming to solve problems? How comfortable does your staff feel when it comes to sharing their ideas or insights?

Today’s schools and child care centers are facing increasingly difficult  issues. Children with complex cognitive, social, developmental or emotional problems. Families under great stress. Programs under financial stress or struggling with the burdens of unfunded mandates. Staff professional development is important, and can be very helpful, but you may be amazed at how much information is locked away in the minds of your teachers.

Complex issues require collaborative problem solving, and when teachers and administrators come together in a collaborative environment, effective solutions can be only a brainstorm away! Think about implementing weekly or monthly staff meetings. If you already do this, make sure you set aside time at the meetings for open discussions and opportunities for collaboration. A team approach to problem solving encourages everyone to become invested in the solution and can raise the quality of teaching across your school.

What is Academically Rigorous?

Today, as I was searching the internet for information on effective nap time routines, I came across an older article from the Washington Post, “Preschools Break From Nap Time“. Apparently Superintendents of  public schools in Virginia and Maryland eliminated nap time from their preschool day because it is precious academic time that is wasted.

Nap time needs to go away,” Prince George’s County, Md., schools chief Andri J. Hornsby said recently. “We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do.

After reading the article, I am dumbfounded! Yes, preschool and child care programs should provide opportunities for children to grow and learn, to partake in enriching and challenging experiences. Research shows that children who have these enriching early experiences are more successful in school.

Research also shows that elementary school children in classrooms where teachers group children into collaborative teams to explore concepts, topics or complex problems that are interesting and meaningful to the children perform better on standardized tests and have fewer behavior issues in school than their peers in traditional classroom environments.

The academic terms for these teaching practices include Complex Instruction, Inquiry Based Learning, Multiple Intelligence Theory, Collaborative Peer Grouping. These terms sound intimidating and complicated, but when you really take a look at the concepts, it is all about doing what most quality preschool programs do already. The teacher serves as a guide to help children learn more about the things they are curious about (brings a magnifying glass to a child looking at a bug on the playground) and invites them to try and explore new ideas (later shows the child a book on different bugs and their habitats). Teachers set up experiences so that children can learn in different ways (sing ABCs, read an ABC book, point out letters in signs). Kids work together to solve problems (how to build a really tall castle with the blocks).

It turns out that when elementary schools take these preschool teaching methods and tweak them to fit the learning goals of their students, the kids actually like learning! Instead of Superintendents trying to push outdated elementary school teaching practices to the preschool level, maybe the preschool teachers should be sharing some of their magic with the elementary schools.

The True Value of a Good Kindergarten Teacher

Last week, NBC took a look at the state of education in our country through a widely-promoted multi-media series they called “Education Nation”. I don’t often get a chance to watch TV, so I missed most of the week’s coverage, but I’d been hearing great reviews about the issues they were presenting, so I thought I’d catch up on everything online. I was very disappointed to find no coverage of preschool or infant/toddler care. In my opinion, this is a major oversight!

I did find one article on kindergarten. Specifically on the true value of a good kindergarten teacher. I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to think about the findings as applying to early childhood educators in general. The NBC article’s roots are in a New York Times article from this past July, touting the findings of  a recent study that looked at 12,000 kindergarten children in Tennessee who are now in their 30s. This study shows that children who have a good kindergarten teacher (the classes performed better than average on a standardized test):

were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

When all of this is factored in, one economist on the study team estimates that a good kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000. Wouldn’t it be nice if the pay of early childhood educators came close to even a tenth of that value?