Preschoolers need more play and fewer scripted lessons, says early childhood educator Erika Christakis - from YaleNews
By Susan Gonzalez
In her just-released book, “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups” (Viking), noted early childhood educator and Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis argues that most of today’s youngest schoolchildren are spending their critical early-learning years in environments that ignore or misunderstand their needs. A former preschool teacher and director who has taught at the Yale Child Study Center, she makes the case that “schooling and learning are often two different things.” She argues that preschool children would be better served if educators get “out of their way” by allowing for more play-based — and less formally scripted — educational experiences, and by creating less cluttered and visually demanding environments in which these naturally curious youngsters can explore and “think out loud.” Drawing on research and clinical experience, Christakis also offers advice on how best to help these young thinkers learn and grow in these potently formative years.
“‘The Importance of Being Little’ reflects Erika’s deep and longstanding commitment to the education of young people,” says Yale President and noted psychologist Peter Salovey. “Her book is sensitive and kind, and it reveals her aspiration that students of all ages will not only speak to one another but also listen. It is this same spirit that has animated her teaching, evincing faith in students’ ability to grow through conversation and interaction.”
Christakis shared some of her thoughts about preschool education with YaleNews before the publication of her book on Feb. 9. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
How has your own work as a preschool teacher and director informed your thoughts about how we can best serve young children?
The more I observe young children in action, the more faith I have that they are capable and powerful. But our expectations are often mismatched: We ask too much of young children pragmatically, but too little of them cognitively. Preschool classrooms are needlessly noisy, over-stimulating, and aesthetically unappealing environments with rapid pacing and jam-packed schedules. There is too much teacher-directed talk on banal topics and insufficient uninterrupted stretches of time to play. The teachers I admire have learned to loosen the reins. But there is nothing ad hoc about their pedagogy; it takes real skill, knowledge, and professional collegiality to create classroom environments where children see themselves as engineers, physicists, sculptors, storytellers, entomologists, philosophers, musicians, and diplomats. That kind of teaching is not easy.
In your book, you argue that pre-school has “adultified” children. How so?
The physical and emotional terrain in which to be a young child is more constrained than ever. We construct children’s environments at home and school with adult eyes and adult desires. We expect preschoolers to conform to our time-tables, our habits, our sleep schedules, our electronics usage, our whims. But I believe there is a way to be more child-centered, and we can do this without making parents and other adults crazy.
When we look at childhood from the preschooler’s perspective, we see many surprises: The small person who dawdles impossibly getting out the door every morning turns out to be the very same person who can hold a newborn baby sibling with the utmost concentration and tenderness. The child who has to be cajoled to cut a piece of red construction paper to make a parent’s Valentine’s Day card can make a meticulous sketch of the grains of beach sand she’s observed under a microscope. So, perhaps the child’s environment needs to be re-sized just a little to leverage more of these special moments and to avoid the challenging ones. Greater attention to what I call the early childhood “habitat” is ultimately quite freeing for both children and adults: We can better see their capacity and power.
You say that one the most important predictors of preschool effectiveness is the relationship between teacher and child. What makes for a beneficial relationship between the two?
Teachers need to know children well on two levels. They need to know the kinds of things to expect from a typical 3-year-old and also to know those 3-year-olds as individuals, each with unique strengths, challenges, and idiosyncrasies. In order to understand young children in this comprehensive way, teachers need to be versed in sound developmental principles and to have the time and opportunity to get to know children in their natural habitat, which is to say in a play-based, language-rich setting involving relationships with adults who cherish them.
In particular, teachers need to take the time to listen to children’s stories, to laugh with them, to get down on the floor, at their eye level, and figure out what makes them tick. This kind of respectful observation of what children can (and can’t) do is rare in early childhood settings, where instead too many children receive calibrated doses of highly scripted, one-size-fits-all instruction on boring themes like “food groups” or the making of an egg-carton caterpillar.
There is a concerted educational focus on closing the achievement gap. How do you think that has impacted the preschool experience, and has it worked?
Children in poverty face a double burden: They are at risk for family stresses that make it hard to provide responsive, language-rich environments at home, and they are then twice as likely to be in lower-quality preschool programs where play and conversation are in short supply.
Some experts estimate that our current preschool system only closes the achievement gap by around 5%, compared to the 30%-50% reduction we could produce if we adopted the widespread use of scientifically validated best practices. This is a lost public policy opportunity of epic proportions. Unfortunately, much of the attention on closing the ability gap has focused on shallow, one-dimensional learning outcomes, such as color and shape recognition, rather than more complex skills such as symbolic thinking or causal inference that come from exploratory, play-based learning. What we want to see is an early childhood pedagogy based on ideas. It’s important to understand that simple skills, such as alphabet awareness, should be the byproduct of good learning, but they shouldn’t be the end point itself.
Has too much stress been placed on accountability in our preschools?
All children are entitled to a year of demonstrable progress in preschool, but we’ve focused on the wrong kinds of accountability measures. We know that children will use higher-level language structures when they are playing grocery store than they will use when gathered around a table counting pictures of grocery carts. We know that children learn optimally when they have secure attachments and deep friendships. We need to re-focus our standards on preparing the classroom environment so that children can thrive: Do teachers understand principles of child development? Are they using a warm, responsive teaching style that elicits inquiry and problem-solving? Are they engaging multiple learning domains simultaneously or just teaching simple skills? These are questions good standards need to address. Many people wrongly assume that such standards can’t be quantified, but they can. Walter Gilliam and Chin Reyes at the Yale Child Study Center are among the researchers at the frontier of creating accountability measures that reflect the cognitive and social-emotional aspirations we should have for young children.
How are preschool curricula affecting children’s enthusiasm for learning?
Preschool teaching is still focused on a content-based curriculum rather than on transferable skills that kids can apply to a variety of dynamic settings. This is a problem because many preschoolers spend three or more years in institutional care before they even hit kindergarten. There’s some evidence that children exposed to the same preschool tedium for multiple years — for example, the dreaded daily tracking of the calendar or unvarying class rules at Circle Time — may actually lose interest in school and fare worse on academic learning outcomes in the later years. We should encourage kids to find recyclable materials around the classroom to make a dinosaur from their imagination rather than taking a pre-fab craft project from the teacher’s box labeled “Dinosaur Unit.” We need to give them a cognitive sequence to follow in every new situation, whether it’s playing in a pile of mud for the first time or holding an injured bird at the nature museum: “observe, question, explore, reflect.”
You mention Finland as a country that gets pre-school education right. What’s different there?
We have to be careful about comparisons, because our countries are so different, but Finland improved its performance by professionalizing its workforce with better pay and other investments. Importantly, Finnish teachers do not have specific performance expectations for young children, but they do have a strongly mission-driven pedagogy with well-articulated “orientations” — what they call “ways of knowing” that are unique to children — such as artistic expression and imaginative play. Within these orientations, the children engage in all the big domains we should care about, such as oral language and number sense and, of course, social skills. In fact, a great many Finnish kindergartners read quite well, even though they aren’t required to start literacy instruction until age seven.
The Finnish approach reveres the physical and conceptual space in which to be a young child. They have giant room-sized clothes dryers for snow suits so the kids can be outdoors multiple times during the day. This approach reflects a rather un-American respect for early childhood as a life stage worthy in its own right and not merely as a training ground for an adult future.
The Worksheet Dilemma: Benefits of Play-Based Curricula
By Sue Grossman, Ph.D.
It was three o'clock and preschool was over for the day. Four-year-old Jamaica, her arms full of papers, called out to her mom. Jamaica's mother smiled and asked, "What's all this? Your school work?" Jamaica nodded and handed the papers to her mother. Jamaica had spent a large part of the afternoon in her seat, pencil in hand, filling out worksheets. On one she had drawn lines from the letter "A" to the picture of an apple; from the letter "P" to the pear; and from the letter "O" to the orange. On another sheet she made her pencil go from the dot on the top line to the dot on the bottom line, thus making the lower-case letter "l." Jamaica's lines were a bit shaky, and her teacher had written, "You can do better" on the page. Jamaica's mother was concerned when she saw the comment and worried that her daughter was not performing well. In truth, Jamaica's work was fine. Her teacher's expectations were the problem.
In many preschools, child care centers, and kindergartens, young children spend their time on worksheet paper and pencil tasks. Teachers who use worksheets believe they are demonstrating children's learning progress to parents. Unfortunately for Jamaica and the other children in her class, worksheet activities are not developmentally appropriate and can cause many problems.
The Worksheet Dilemma
Worksheets typically have a "right answer." Jamaica is expected to circle the rhyming words or match the pictures of things that start with the letter "G." She may learn quickly that putting down a wrong answer is emotionally costly. Worksheet activities may make her feel ignorant and incompetent, so that she learns to stop taking risks by guessing.
Problem solving involves an element of risk. If we want children to learn to solve problems we must create safe environments in which they feel confident taking risks, making mistakes, learning from them, and trying again (Fordham & Anderson, 1992). In a play-based curriculum, each day provides opportunities to learn about reading, writing, and math through real, meaningful situations. For instance, children set the table for snack so each child has one napkin, one straw, and one box of milk. Children string beads to match the pattern on a card or wait their turn because there is room for only four children at the art table. Through these meaningful experiences children begin to understand number, quantity, size, and other mathematical concepts.
Early childhood education experts agree that the years from birth to age eight are a critical learning time for children (Bee, 1992; Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1993; Willis, 1995). During these years, children have many cognitive, emotional, physical, and social tasks to accomplish (Katz, 1989). While children may have the ability to perform a task, that does not mean that the task is appropriate and should be performed. Educators agree that learning to read, write, and compute are undeniably important skills for children to acquire. The question is how and when they should be learned.
Most preschool and kindergarten children are in what Piaget described as the preoperational stage of cognitive development. Letters and numerals typically mean little to the three- to six-year-olds in this stage. These children use concrete rather than abstract symbols to represent objects and ideas (Bodrova & Leong, 1996). Through pretending, children develop the ability mentally to represent the world (Bredekamp, 1987; Stone, 1995). Reading requires a child to look at symbols or representations (i.e., letters and words) and extract meaning from them. A play-based curriculum offers children opportunities throughout the day to develop the ability to think abstractly by experiencing real objects using their senses (Bredekamp, 1987; Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1993). Blocks can represent an airplane or a train. High heels can transform a preschooler into a mother or princess. Blocks and high heels are three dimensional, tangible objects. Sufficient practice using concrete objects as symbols is a necessary prerequisite to the use and comprehension of print (Stone, 1995).
Mathematical understanding is more than recognition of numerals and amounts. Sorting, categorizing, putting items in a series, and problem solving are all important math concepts (Raines & Canady, 1990). The teacher may believe that Jamaica understands the concept of "four" if she circles four flowers on the worksheet. But until Jamaica can transfer that learning to other situations, such as the number of places at the table for four people, Jamaica does not truly understand what "four" means. Similarly, Jamaica may be able to print the letters "R," "U," and "N" on a worksheet, but be unable to read the word "run" when she sees it in a book. The mere accomplishment of the worksheet task does not signify the child's ability to read or comprehend.
In any group of young children asked to do a paper-pencil task, some will succeed and some will be less successful. The successful children may truly comprehend the task or may simply have guessed correctly. The less successful ones often learn to think of themselves as failures, and ultimately may give up on school and on themselves (Katz & Chard, 1989). These children may react to the stress created by fear of giving the wrong answers by acting out their frustrations and becoming behavior problems, or by withdrawing and becoming reclusive (Charlesworth, 1996). Parents may report school phobic behaviors such as stomach aches in the morning or refusal to get into the car to go to preschool. These children have learned, at an early age, that school can be an emotionally painful place.
School should be a welcoming, peaceful place for children - an environment to which children come eager to see what challenging, stimulating, and fun activities are in store. Children know they may not succeed at everything they try, but also know they will be valued for who they are. Children's efforts should be rewarded, so that they will persevere and they will see themselves as learners (Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren, & Soderman, 1993).
Children are born with a need to move (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1993). They wiggle, toddle, run, and climb as naturally as they breathe. When we insist that children sit still and do what for them may be a meaningless task, such as completing a workbook page, we force children into a situation incompatible with their developmental needs and abilities. When children cannot or will not do such a task, we may label them "immature" or "hyperactive." We may complain about their short attention span, or as in Jamaica's case, criticize her efforts. On the other hand, if we allow children to choose their own task from among appropriate offerings, we may see children as young as three and four years old spend 30 to 45 minutes completely engrossed in building with unit blocks, painting at the easel, or listening to stories. When we plan developmentally appropriate activities for children, they will attend to them, work hard, and learn (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992).
Before a child can hold a pencil and make an accurate mark on paper, he must have a great deal of small motor control. He needs practice with various materials and objects that require grasping, holding, pinching, and squeezing. He must have ample opportunity to make his own marks with objects such as paint brushes, chalk, fat crayons, and felt-tip markers. Only later, when he has achieved the necessary finger and hand control, should he be asked to write words or numerals with a pencil. The timing of this accomplishment will vary among children. Some four-year-olds and most five-year-olds are ready to write a few things, notably their own names. But, we must remember that each child develops on his or her own schedule, and some six-year-olds may be just starting this task. If they are encouraged, rather than criticized, they will continue to learn and grow and feel confident.
Teachers who require young children to perform passive tasks like worksheets may be heard exhorting them, "Do your own work. Eyes on your own paper." There are few situations in the adult world in which we cannot ask a friend or colleague for help with a task, or for their ideas about a problem. In fact, leaders in business and industry say they need employees who can work in teams to solve problems. Yet we ask children to do what are often impossible tasks, and insist that they suffer through them alone.
The foundations for our social relationships are laid in the early years (Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren, & Soderman, 1993). This is the time when we discover the roles we may play, the rules for getting along in society, the consequences for not following rules, and how to make friends. The only way to learn these concepts is to engage actively with others. When we do not allow children enough time to accomplish fundamental social tasks, we set the stage for social problems later on. Middle and high schools cope daily with antisocial behaviors that in some cases reach the point of violence. If we expect adolescents to know how to work and live with others, and solve problems peacefully, we would do well to begin the process when children are young.
Developmentally Appropriate Activities
There are many active, and far more interesting, ways for children to begin understanding words and numbers than via worksheets (Mason, 1986). A classroom with a developmentally appropriate curriculum is a print-rich environment. The walls are covered with signs naming objects, stories children have dictated, lists of words they have generated, pictures they have painted and labeled, and charts of classroom jobs (such as feeding the pet and passing out napkins for snack).
At the small motor activities table there may be sandpaper letters to feel and puzzles to complete. Creative activities may include squirting shaving cream onto the table and having children make designs and write their names. And always there are many books to explore, examine, wonder about, listen to, and love as they are read aloud. In these ways, children learn that reading and writing are useful skills, not simply tedious activities adults invent to make school boring. It takes a lot of experience with words and print for children to understand why it is good to be able to read.
If we cannot demonstrate children's progress with worksheets, how do we provide evidence of learning? Here are several ways:
Portfolios – A portfolio is a collection of a child's work. Portfolios can include the following:
· Work Samples: Keep samples of each child's drawings and writing, including invented spelling. Photographs of creations of clay, wood, and other materials can also be included. Children should have a say in what is included in their own portfolio. Date each piece so that progress throughout the school year can be noted.
· Observations: Keep observational records of what children do in the class. There are many efficient methods of recording children's behavior. Audio and video tape can capture them in action. Occasional anecdotal notes also help.
· Checklists: Record children's skill development on checklists. Progress in beginning letter recognition, name writing, and self-help skills, for example, can be listed and checked off as children master them.
· Appropriate worksheets: For example, children experimenting with objects to discover if they sink or float can record their observations on paper divided into a float column and a sink column. This shows that they are doing actual scientific experimentation and recording the data.
· Parent Newsletters: Teachers can send home periodic parent newsletters which explain the activities children are doing at school and the teacher's goals and objectives. When parents understand the value of developmentally appropriate activities they will feel confident that their children are learning and growing, not "just playing."
· Center Labels: Signs in the classroom describing what children learn in the various learning centers help adults understand the value of children's work in that area. In the block corner, for example, children learn about weight, length, balance, volume, and shape, as well as problem solving, social role playing, and cooperation. At the art center children learn to express themselves on paper and with other media, to solve problems, and to communicate with others. Signs help skeptics see what is really happening as children work at play.
· Photographs: Photographs of daily activities in the classroom can be displayed around the room and in hallways. They provide graphic evidence to parents, administrators, and other teachers of children working and learning in a rich, exciting atmosphere.
There are two fundamental problems with worksheets. First, young children do not learn from them what teachers and parents believe they do (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1993). Second, children's time should be spent in more beneficial endeavors (Willis, 1995). The use of abstract numerals and letters, rather than concrete materials, puts too many young children at risk of school failure. This has implications for years to come. Worksheets and workbooks should be used in schools only when children are older and developmentally ready to profit from them (Bredekamp, S. & Rosegrant, T., 1992). Our challenge is to convince parents and others that in a play-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum children are learning important knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them be successful in school and later life.
Sue Grossman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of early childhood teacher education at Eastern. Michigan University
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