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!

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 Dramatic play and block building have been replaced by desks and writing assignments.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.

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?

What is RTI and How Does it Work in Preschool?

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a term that is being used a lot in schools across the country. Basically, it is an effort to give children a more customized educational experience. Over the past decade schools have found that an increasing number of their students need special education services. This is costly for schools, and because the special education referral process can take a lot of time, it is also costly to the children who have to wait to receive the support they need to succeed in school.

As a response to this issue, many states and school districts have begun exploring teaching techniques that can be used in elementary classrooms, with all of the children. The hope is that this effort to meet children’s individual needs early will help prevent the need for intervention services down the road. Because many children are referred to Special Ed for reading or or behavior issues, many schools’ RTI initiatives revolve around support in these areas.

While much of the RTI efforts across the country are in elementary schools, the approach can also be very successful in preschools. The earlier we can catch issues that may cause a child some difficulties in school, the easier it is to address those needs and keep that child learning at the same level as his peers.

According to the Center for Response to Intervention in Early Childhood, the hope is that RTI in preschool will provide:

  • General Pre-K instruction that is more individualized, more responsive to children’s needs, and that can be implemented without long delays
  • An increase in the percentage of children ready for Kindergarten
  • A reduction in children that need special education services
  • A coordinated system of care and education that finds children, and brings services to them at appropriate speed

There are some challenges that come with bringing the RTI model into preschools. For example:

  • RTI assumes coordinated teamwork between general and special education to carry out screening, progress monitoring and to implement tiers of intervention. Many preschools do not have special educators on staff.
  • RTI models assume a high level of expertise to carry out interventions in three tiers. Again, finding teachers with that expertise at the preschool level is not easy.
  • Few evidence-based curricula and interventions are available and widely implemented, especially at Tier 1

I have been involved with a team implementing RTI at a local preschool and going through the process of meeting our state’s desired preschool outcomes has been very beneficial for the staff and the children. It has created a better program. I am also happy to say that the WoW Kit curriculum was used to help meet tier 1 and tier 2 learning goals and we met that challenge with great success!

Preschool Funding Across the Nation

PreK Now, a national organization advocating to make preschool accessible to all children, has released their annual report detailing the preschool funding proposals outlined by the governors of every state in the union. This report is helpful for understanding the value our elected officials place on quality learning environments for our youngest children.

On the bright side, there are more states are finding ways to increase funding for preschool programs than states cutting back funding. Considering the financial situation of most states, this shows a real commitment to the importance of early learning. Unfortunately, twelve states are cutting back on funding and 1o states (including New Hampshire) continue to offer no funding at all.

On the federal level, the Obama administration has done a lot of talking about the importance of preschool, but the talk has been followed up by very little action.

I agree completely with the statement at the end of the report’s overview section:

Across the country, policy makers are working to balance declining budgets with growing demands for quality education systems that prepare children to become the workforce of tomorrow and generate positive returns on taxpayer investments. Nationwide, at both the state and federal levels, prioritizing pre-k as the essential starting point for successful education reform is urgently needed. Nothing less than the future of our children, our schools and our national economic competitiveness is at stake.

Evidence seems to be coming in from all sides (financial, academic, social) supporting the importance of preschool. Isn’t it time to follow the evidence and make a real commitment to offer every child the benefits of early learning experiences?

New Mexico’s PreK Program Giving an 18% Return on Investment

The vast majority of states (40 out of 50) currently put money towards some kind of preschool program. Many financial analysts see this as an investment that has the potential to bring back high returns.

There are a lot of statistics showing the effectiveness of a quality preschool program on young children, but the concept of a state-funded preschool program is still relatively new and the actual impact on a state-level has only been speculative, until now.

Started in 2005, New Mexico has one of the newest state funded pre-k programs. Recently the National Institute for Early Education Research completed a three year study on this preschool program. The results are very positive and include these key findings:

  • New Mexico PreK produces meaningful impacts on young children’s language, literacy, and math development
  • Overall classroom quality is good, but some improvements are needed, particularly in classroom support for early mathematics
  • Impacts of PreK and classroom quality are similar for PreK program sites administered by the state Public Education Department and the state Children, Youth and Families Department
  • An estimated $5 in benefits is generated in New Mexico for every dollar invested in New Mexico PreK

It is the last of these findings that has me most intrigued. According to the report, the dollar benefits are calculated by looking at

  • the reduction of the number of children retained in grade
  • the decrease in the number of children needing special education services
  • an assumed increase in graduation rates

Even more suprisingly, the report estimates that

The benefit to U.S. society is estimated at $6.17 for every dollar invested in New Mexico [because] participants will have better educational outcomes that produce higher earnings. They will be less likely to engage in criminal behavior, to be victims of abuse and neglect, and to use welfare services.

This puts the rate of return of New Mexico’s state‐funded pre-k program at an estimated 18.1 percent for New Mexico and an estimated 22.3 percent to the country as a whole. Wow!

To view the complete report, click here.