On my daughter’s first day of kindergarten 25 years ago, I was thrilled to see a door from the classroom that led straight to a sunny playground. But as the days passed, that door seldom opened: her teacher said the class would not be able to go outside during the school day because their academic reading program took too much time. By the end of the year, not many of the kindergartners had made much progress in reading. The goals were grossly out of step with the cognitive development of five-year olds. What they had lost were golden opportunities to stretch their minds in the ways that we know work well for young children, namely through pretend play, curiosity, creativity, and conversation.
The monumental question ahead of today’s educators is this: will the rise of the Core Curriculum State Standards (CCSS) for grades K-12, an initiative of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, shut those kindergarten doors to the playground more firmly than ever? Will programs require preschool teachers to accomplish, say, third-grade goals so that four-year olds can enter kindergarten ready to read at a fourth grade level?
I don’t think so. Nothing in the standards forces us to teach preschoolers as if they were older students. The problems lie in how those standards are implemented. We must start with the clear recognition that using “big kid” teaching strategies with little kids is not only bad for preschoolers; it simply does not work.
Preschool programs stray away from developmentally appropriate practice when they focus on rote learning, paper and pencil assessments, worksheets and technology that appears like glorified worksheets, flashcards, and decontextualized one-size-fits-all lessons. Implementing these methods in preschool reveals a serious lack of understanding about preschool development.
We know what quality preschool is and what it can accomplish. It certainly does not look like fourth grade. For some of our best examples, read here about the Perry preschool project and the studies that followed participants for forty years. Children who attended developmentally appropriate preschool that supported child-centered learning, free choice and play grew up to achieve higher levels of education, higher levels of employment, and less dependence on costly funded programs such as special education and welfare.
Curriculum standards are like the ingredients for a cake: Just because you have one set of ingredients doesn’t mean all of your cakes turn out the same way. Your cake will depend on the recipe you use and on your baking skills. Just as a recipe describes how to use those ingredients, curriculum can guide teachers on how to use the standards. Standards do not make a curriculum--but curriculum models can be developed to support appropriate standards in a variety of ways.
Each state is approaching the standards in different ways; state regulations are interpreted by school districts and individual programs in different ways. Let’s take a look at some of these “recipes.”
New Jersey is making great strides in developing preschool standards that align to the CCSS in developmentally appropriate ways. Under Language Arts and Literacy for example, the list of effective teaching strategies includes this item: “Organize a variety of age-appropriate activities that encourage oral language development (e.g., by joining in pretend play, encouraging children to talk about their experiences in small groups, providing hands-on science activities.)”
Another approach to developmentally appropriate learning goals for preschool is emerging at the Office of Head Start’s School Readiness initiatives and supports site. Head Start has created its own Child Development and Early Learning Framework with domains that can align with the CCSS. Head Start also offers ways to teach in these domains using developmentally appropriate preschool methods such as the following example for alphabet knowledge: “Create a sign-in sheet for children, grouping names by initial letters in the first name. At first, children may just make a scribble or mark, but gradually they will begin to write the letters in their names.”
The real national crisis is about information about what is developmentally appropriate for different students. Policy makers don’t know about what makes preschool learning unique. Too many district superintendents have advanced degrees in education without taking a single course specific to meeting the needs of children under age five. Teachers are entering the early childhood education workforce in record numbers but many are not prepared to understand the cognitive and language development behind child centered, developmentally appropriate practice.
No educator or policy maker should begin to talk about rules and requirements for preschool until they have read the central guidance for our field: Developmentally Appropriate Practice as compiled by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. This research-based guide reminds us that children under the age of six years learn best through the rich, creative, exploratory, hands-on discoveries and interactions that happen during play. When early learning happens in this kind of play, it grows, lasts and creates the strong foundation children need to succeed later in school. It is the foundation on which successful accomplishment of the CCSS standards will be possible.
We can accomplish the learning goals within developmentally appropriate discovery and play. Think about how children are fascinated by ants on playground. A creative, prepared teacher can talk with them about how many legs the ant has, (counting) the difference in shape between head and abdomen (geometry, comparison, vocabulary), and ask questions about where the ants live and what they eat. Together, teachers and children can look up answers on a mobile device right there on the playground.
This kind of child-centered, developmentally appropriate approach is supported by compelling research. Check Allison Gopnik’s article, “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.” A recent article on the new review of the research by Angeline Lillard reports that pretend play in early childhood can be an effective way to support language development and self regulation.
The question is, who is reading that research? We waste energy fighting against the Core Curriculum State Standards when we should be fighting FOR information. Underprepared teachers and misinformed administrators and policy makers will continue to choose inappropriate paths for preschool education whether the CCS Standards exist or not. If we want to build a successful national education system on a foundation of strong early childhood education, we need well-informed policy makers, voters, educators and consumers to understand what works for preschool – and we need them now.