Play for Pre-K & Kindergarten Schooling

Be Careful Choosing Early Schooling for Your Child

A teacher leads five kindergarteners through an art lessonOver the last 20+ years, early schooling (preschool and kindergarten) in the U.S. has changed dramatically. Kindergarten, once seen as an optional early start, is now mandatory in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The traditional kindergarten format of playful lesson formats and free play with letter blocks and number puzzles is less common; now, kids must spend some of their day sitting and listening to the teacher (in educational jargon this is called “didactic instruction”).

Standardized testing drove school boards to didactic instruction; districts are under intense pressure to make sure their students’ scores meet state and national standards. The spontaneous, innately motivated play that is so important to our children’s healthy development is being pushed aside in favor of practice tests and teacher-led instruction (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2008, pp. 9-10).

Too many policymakers seem to believe that play-based learning is inefficient, that only didactic instruction leads to good test scores. This belief is not just wrong, it’s backward; it ignores the science. A multitude of research studies – including a longitudinal, randomized control study that followed 3000 kids from pre-K through to sixth grade – show that didactic instruction before first grade is a mistake and can lead to both lower test scores and more behavioral problems (Marcon 1993; Miller 1998; Lipsey 2018; Lipsey 2022; Gray 2022). For some children, didactic instruction should be delayed even longer, into later elementary grades.

The national fixation in the United States on early standardized testing wrongly focuses on educating and testing half of the child — their cognitive achievement (reading, arithmetic, and so on). But children are both cognitive and emotional beings, and cognitive achievement in very young children requires a foundation of emotional development. Play-based instruction addresses both the cognitive and the emotional aspects of children’s development (Letourneau and Sobel 2020). Didactic instruction does nothing to support young children’s emotional development; in fact, the requirement to sit still and listen actually impedes it (Marcon 1993).

The exiling of play is one of the great tragedies of standardized education.

Peter Gray, 2013

Play = Total Learning

Three schoolchildren working together to build a model of the Eiffel Tower using a metal construction kit.

From infancy through their early years, children learn through free play (Gray 2016). Their play circuits are triggered by situations in their environment. A newborn’s upper brain begins developing neural pathways in their first months as they learn to move (play with) their fingers, arms and legs, and eventually to move around to explore and learn from their extended environment. Watch young children playing freely and you will see them investigating and learning about their world. Which toy is heavier? How tall is the tower? How much taller can we make the tower? How far can I throw the ball? This is cognitive development, which leads to the person’s IQ.

As important as cognitive skills are, social and emotional learning (SEL) is equally or more important. SEL is how people develop the emotional skills they need to succeed in school and in life overall: managing their emotions, working well with peers, showing empathy for others. Free play is the best way for young children to learn and master those skills. Play with other children is how they learn to understand the issues and emotions that arise when interacting with peers, particularly how to regulate their emotions. Through play, they develop the skills they’ll need to excel in teacher-led instruction and they develop confidence in their ability to be social (Gray 2013). 

Only through play can children develop both cognitive skills (IQ) and emotional skills (EQ); they need both to succeed in school and in life. For kids, play isn’t the opposite of learning. Play is learning.

Another Problem with Test-Based Early Education

A schoolboy napping with his head on his desk while his bored seatmate works on her assignment.Age-based classrooms also disregard the reality that children’s cognitive and emotional abilities develop at different rates. A 7-year-old who must move to think may not spend as much time practicing reading or be as comfortable with basic math as one who naturally focuses on objects. A 5-year-old who is happiest interacting with other children may be better at managing emotions than another who is happiest playing alone and making up imaginative adventures.

Comparing young children’s abilities or knowledge based on their physical age is misguided, because it overlooks these differences. As long as parents, teachers, and caretakers are fostering improvement and children are in a secure home environment, most children will catch up on any lagging abilities by about age 10 — roughly 5th grade.

The Alternative: Developmentally Appropriate Classrooms

Schoolchildren at shared tables drawing with markers, as a teacher offers individual help to a child.In developmentally appropriate classrooms, learning about different subjects is integrated across activities, instead of spread across traditional age-based subject classes like math and language arts. Developmentally appropriate schools also make these subjects meaningful for children by relating them to their interests and everyday experiences, so kids are actively involved in learning instead of passively absorbing dispensed knowledge chosen by someone else.

Studies show that children in developmentally appropriate classrooms have better academic outcomes (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2008). Some children given didactic instruction may score better on exams that year, but the gains don’t last (Datta et al. 1976). Plus, all children in developmentally appropriate classes are developing their social and emotional abilities while they learn. Many of the children in didactic classrooms become demotivated and underachieve because they are not ready for didactic instruction (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2008) — they are missing out on that critical EQ development.

Bottom Line: Kids Who Play More Achieve More

When considering your child’s early school experiences, one of your first questions should be whether the school provides play-based instruction. If your local school is more focused on teacher-led classes for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, consider your options. You might ask school administrators or the school board why their policies are the opposite of what research shows kids need. If it’s an option for your family, look around for other district schools, or for private options like Waldorf or Montessori schools, that do offer play-based instruction. Push back against standardized testing and age-based assessments that don’t consider the whole child. Your local parent–teacher organization or school foundation might be able to help you advocate for play-based classrooms that follow research-based best practices. Most of all, avoid any hint of high-pressure environments, and make sure your child has plenty of time for free play outside school hours. There will be plenty of time to worry about test scores and college admissions later. Our children only get to be young once, and what they learn in their early years will stay with them all their lives. We should protect that opportunity at all costs.