WHAT THE RESEARCH TELLS US
By Joanne Esser
Picture this: A group of 4-year-olds is clustered together outdoors, busily stirring a mixture of sand, pebbles, water, and wood chips they have poured into old pots. Their conversation is animated as they debate about what ingredients should be added to their “potions.” They make up stories about how they will use their potions to shrink an imaginary giant, each child adding some details to the growing story.
Down the street at a different childcare center, another group of 4-year-olds is sitting at a table. The teacher is telling them to repeat after her a rhyme about the sounds of an alphabet letter. Their task is to color in a series of worksheets about the letter and copy the letter on the lines with a pencil.
Which group of 4-year-olds will be more prepared to succeed in school?
You have probably heard All Seasons Preschool staff talk about the importance of play as the main way young children learn. This is not only our opinion; it is supported by solid research evidence.
Parents may or may not be aware of new research studies about young children and learning, though. This kind of research may or may not be featured in the popular media. But when a new well-controlled, long-term research study comes out, early childhood educators pay attention to it.
In February 2022, a groundbreaking study on Tennessee’s statewide Pre-K program released its findings: Children who attended academically-focused preschools actually did worse over the long term than peers who did not attend that kind of program. Researchers discovered the harm such programs do to children over time: poorer scores on academic tests, more children showing learning disorders and more behavioral problems at school.
Other earlier studies, such as the well-known Perry Preschool Project in the mid-1960’s, have consistently found that children from “academic” preschool programs do enter kindergarten with some short-term advantages over children who have spent their early years engaged in play. They are typically more advanced in skills like letter-recognition and print awareness because these skills were explicitly over-emphasized in their preschool. However, whenever researchers have studied the long-term impacts, these academic advantages disappear over the course of only a few years, and the children are worse off by other measures, compared to their peers who spent their early years engaged in social, self-directed play.
The recent Tennessee study, conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University, looked at a group of high-poverty children randomly selected (by lottery) to attend a free, “high quality” preschool that focused on early academic training – up to five hours a day of instruction. The program’s intention was to give these low-income children a boost so they would be better equipped to succeed in school. Same-age children who did not attend that kind of preschool served as a control group. It was a well-designed study of nearly 3,000 children, following them through sixth grade.
What the data showed was that at the beginning of kindergarten, the academic Pre-K group performed better on all academic measures than the control group. But the control group soon caught up and generally surpassed their peers. By third grade, the control group performed significantly better on all academic measures than the children who attended the academic Pre-K. In addition, those in the academic Pre-K group were significantly more likely to have diagnosed learning disorders and had a higher rate of behavior issues (school rule violations) than the control group.
By sixth grade, the advantages to the group that did not have the academic preschool “training” were even greater: higher scores on all achievement tests, fewer special education placements and far fewer behavioral offenses committed at school. This study reinforces other research that shows children who have rich opportunities to play rather than being pushed into heavy academic instruction at young ages do better later in school.
These clear results surprised the researchers. What explains the harmful effects of early academic training in preschool?
Some analysts speculate that early academic instruction results in shallow learning of skills: enough to pass tests in kindergarten, but that interferes with deeper learning later. Early pressure and the grind of drilling inappropriate academics might also lead to a dislike of school, or a rebellious attitude that shows up in school later. One expert researcher commenting on possible reasons for the disturbing results described “too much whole-group instruction, rigid behavioral controls, not enough time spent outside,” and said, “Ideally Pre-K should involve more play.”
The main concern for us as early childhood educators is: what are young children missing when they are spending hours a day on academic training? Four- and five-year-olds need lots of time to practice taking initiative, socializing, negotiating with others, solving problems on their own and learning how to take care of themselves. These are all things that truly “prepare them for school.” The Tennessee study is confirmation that those of us who are focused on creating caring learning environments that are play-based, language- and social skills-heavy are on the right track.
Durkin, K., Lipsey, M.W., Farran, D.C., & Wiesen, S.E. (2022, January 10). “Effects of a Statewide Pre-Kindergarten Program on Children’s Achievement and Behavior Through Sixth Grade.” Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0001301
Lipsey, M.W., Farran, D.C., & Durkin, K. (2018). “Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Achievement and Behavior Through the Third Grade.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45, 155-176.
Gray, Peter. (2022, January 31). “Research Reveals Long-Term Harm of State Pre-K Program.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/202201/research-reveals-long-term-harm-state-pre-k-program
Kamenetz, Anya. (2022, February 10) “A Top Researcher Says It’s Time to Rethink Our Entire Approach to Preschool.” NPR News. https://www.npr.org/2022/02/10/1079406041/researcher-says-rethink-prek-preschool-prekindergarten