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The Death of Pre-School

So if you pay $14,300 a year, your pre-schooler can get lessons in pointillism.

by Paul Tullis

On a perfect Southern California morning
not long ago, a gaggle of children
gathered in the backyard of a milliondollar
home in an upscale Los Angeles
neighborhood to celebrate the birthday
of twin four-year-old girls. The host parents had rented
a petting zoo for the day, and kids jumped gleefully
in a bouncy castle out in the driveway. On the terrace,
a few parents chatted beside an alluring spread
of bagels, coffee and fruit.

Most of the kids at the party attend the same preschool.
The father of one child enrolled there, where
tuition is $14,300 a year for half a day, was asked
what he likes about it.

"I like that my daughter can tell me what kind of
whale it is we see in a movie," said the man, sporting
a seersucker jacket. "They seem to be teaching things
that other schools don't."

"You ask them what they did in school today,"
chimed in another dad, "and they're like, 'Oh, today
we learned about pointillism.' There's a whole series
on Picasso, a four-month project on Klimt."
The first father continued his praise. "You go in
there, and they're sitting down, learning something,"
he said. "At other preschools, they're just playing."

These parents might be surprised to learn that
"just playing" is in fact what nearly all developmental
psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts
recommend for children up to age seven as the
best way to nurture kids' development and ready
them for academic success later in life. Decades of research
have demonstrated that their innate curiosity
leads them to develop their social, emotional and
physical skills independently, through exploration--
that is, through play. Even animals as diverse as squirrels,
horses and bears engage in, and cognitively benefit
from, play [see "The Serious Need for Play," by
Melinda Wenner; Scientific American Mind, February/
March 2009].

The trend among preschools, however, is to engage
children in activities that look more and more
like school for older kids. Early-childhood educators
are turning to a method known as direct instruction,
which the National Institute for Direct Instruction,
an advocacy group, defines as "teaching that emphasizes
well-developed and carefully planned lessons â¦
and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks." So
children spend more time sitting, listening and following instructions and less time playing pirates. . . .
You can access the rest of the article through your library or behind the $5.99 paywall at the url below. It's $5.99 for the whole issue.

Learning in Limbo
1. A growing consensus among psychologists and neuroscientists maintains that children learn best when allowed to explore their environments through play.

2. Preschools are increasingly turning away from play-based learning to lectures and testing.

3. Placing heavy emphasis on academics early in life is not only out of line with how young brains develop, it might even impede successful learning later on.

— Paul Tullis
Scientific American Mind





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