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!

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.

Do Babies Really Understand Words?

We’ve all been told to speak to our babies to encourage their language development, but how much does an infant really understand? New evidence shows that they understand quite a bit!

A recent study out of the University of California, San Diego shows that baby brains process words just as adult brains do. This flies in the face of the idea that baby learning is more primitive and with time the brain processes information in a more sophisticated way. You can learn more about this study in this article in PsychCentral.

So, talk to your baby. Use real words. Read with your infant. Create an environment full of wonderful language and know that every word is soaking in.

As for future implications of a study like this, I worry it may be used to support the idea that even infants should be placed in a “school setting” similar to that of older children. I hope it will help people to see that even older children would benefit from the more holistic, integrated natural learning environments that help babies to thrive.

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!

A Deeper Look at “Autistic-Like”

At the NAEYC Annual Conference in Anaheim I had the pleasure of watching a showing of the documentary Autistic-Like by filmmaker and father, Erik Linthorst. The film chronicles the journey of a family as they come to the realization that their beautiful toddler is not developing as children typically do and follows them through the maze of doctors, testing, therapies and emotional highs and lows that follow.

As early childhood educators, we are often present in the lives of families when the process of diagnosis of autism begins. And while we may be aware that going through this is difficult for parents, it is eye-opening to see the parent perspective presented in such an honest and intelligent way.

What really caught my attention was the exploration of sensory processing disorders as another possible reason for autistic-like behaviors in children. Everything in a child’s environment is filtered through the senses, and when the senses are not coordinating well, children can become overwhelmed or feel a sense of detachment. This can lead to self-soothing and repetitive behaviors that look an awful lot like autism.

In the documentary, this family discovers that their son may have sensory processing problems, and may not be autistic after all. They explore “floor time” a therapy outlined by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and eventually decide to pursue a DIR (Developmental, Individual and Relationship-based) course of therapy that yields impressive results. It made me realize that the behaviors typically associated with autism are simply behaviors and when we see those behaviors, we need to take the time to figure out the reason behind the behavior before jumping to the conclusion of autism.

For parents interested in exploring more about sensory processing issues, there is an online parent network at www.sensoryplanet.com.

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.

Is Your Program Taking Advantage of Federal Stimulus Funds?

Did you know that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or federal stimulus package, includes a decent amount of funding for improving early childhood education? And if our legislators have done any reading on current economic research, they will realize that funding early childhood programs is a great use of federal money.

The return on investment is unheard of in financial circles (close to 16%). Studies show that when states help all children go to preschool, they spend less on costly special education services as children enter elementary school, families have more disposable income which they spend in the economy, crime rates go down as these children get older, states spend less on expensive social support services… the list of positive, money-saving and economy-boosting impacts goes on and on!

PreKnow.org has devoted a page on their website to helping early childhood programs learn about state programs and initiatives that are backed by ARRA money. Take a look at what your state is doing and check out the other resources PreK Now has available to help you navigate the funding possibilities available to you as a result of this stimulus package. You could find funds for everything from teacher training to curriculum materials. It’s worth a look!