Purposes of Preschool

Way back at NCTE I made this note to myself:

What is the best way to support young children as they prepare for school? Preschool? Kindergarten? Or supporting families? What do middle class families want! Why should it be different?

I’m not certain where I was in the conference or who was speaking or why these thoughts came to mind, but they aren’t totally new to me. As a kindergarten teacher now and a first grade teacher for the past six years, I have thought a lot more about preschool and early education than I did when I taught fourth and fifth graders.

In just my decade and a half in education I have watched our expectations for young children accelerate astoundingly. Kindergarten looks much more like first grade did not long ago. Even preschool is beginning to look more like first grade! My current school has three head start classes now and, as a kindergarten teacher, I am grateful for that. But I hear a lot of talk about the academics that should be taught in head start. I would prefer those three and four year olds spend their days playing. In that way they will learn a lot of language, social interaction skills, and improve their executive functioning. If they came to kindergarten stronger in those areas we can get their academic foundation set then. Along with more play!

A recent piece from Minnesota Public Radio brought this to my mind again. It is titled, All day pre-K builds better kindergartner, U study says. At first it annoyed me for the same reason many mainstream media pieces on education annoy me.

Now, a new University of Minnesota study has found that children who attend all-day preschool are far more prepared for kindergarten than students who go to part-day programs.

As is so often true, it never really explains what ‘far more prepared for kindergarten’ means. Sadly, I think it’s safe to assume it means higher test scores. Even in kindergarten.

It did go on to say that students in full-day and half-day preschool programs were tested socially and academically to see if they were prepared for kindergarten. (Emphasis is mine.) That gives me some hope that we aren’t forgetting that these are young children and not alphabet and counting machines.

Continuing on, I am given more hope:

The all-day program, modeled after the one studied in Chicago, gives teachers more time to work with students and also gives students more time to play, make friends and get used to being in school for an entire day, said Lisa Parins, a pre-K teacher at Obama Elementary.

Giving students more time to learn social skills is just as important as time for academic work, said Megan Gunnar, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.

“If you can regulate yourself, if you can follow directions, if you can think through a problem then you’re really ready to learn,” she said, adding that being ready for kindergarten is an early predictor of how students will do later in school.

I’d argue that ‘giving students more time to learn social skills’ is actually more important at this age than ‘time for academic work’. When students don’t gain those critical life skills, social, linguistic, executive functioning, etc., we see the challenges they face later. Currently I’ve got multiple tabs open to articles and information about Tools of the Mind because this is an issue I keep hearing about from teachers in my school.

About Tools of the Mind:

Tools of the Mind is a research-based program combining transformational early childhood pedagogy with an innovative curriculum that helps young children to develop the cognitive, social-emotional, self-regulatory, and foundational academic skills they need to succeed in school and beyond.

I think, if we looked back a bit, we’d find that the skills listed above, both by Tools of the Mind and in the MPR piece, were ones that kindergarten was originally designed to support. Now that we expect kiddos to be reading in kindergarten we’ve had to push those skills down to preschool.

I fear that the movement towards universal preschool, an idea that sounds wonderful in theory, will simply mean our children have less time to play, less time to learn to self-regulate and interact with others. Our kiddos will be able to count and read younger but will be unable to function in groups. That’s not a trade-off that seems worth it to me.


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