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Preschool Without Play

A robot transformer created by my grandson

Posted in ChicagoNow, March 24, 2014

Driving my 4-year-old grandson to his preschool in Indiana was a hoot. Being a substitute nanny is priceless when given the following directions to get to school: “You drive straight and then you stop. Don’t take a shortcut.” To make the drive more entertaining, I ask him questions about what he will do that day. My questions are based on over 30 years in the preschool business in Evanston, Illinois. My assumptions all turn out to be wrong.

First question: Will you make an easel painting for me today?

Answer: We only get to paint sometimes if we make a project.

Second question: What will you play with when you get there?

Answer: We don’t play until “free play” time after snack.

Third question: What’s your teacher’s name?

Answer: Teacher?

Time to stop asking questions. I walk him to a room with toys but no playdoh or paint easel or sand/water table. When we enter, my grandson doesn’t want to remove his hoodie sweatshirt. At first the teacher mumbles something about helping his friends earn outside play by following the rules. He insists he wants to keep the hoodie on and, when she sees I don’t care, she relents and lets him enter.

Here’s what he brings home at the end of the day:

Yes, it’s a worksheet on letter “N.” No drawings or paintings or even projects. Only this and three similar worksheets. Sigh.

At home he’s all about drawing vehicles, robots, and superheroes. He meticulously copies the details of Darth Vader from a tiny Lego version. He’s amazing in his ability to see and draw the details. I guess he never does this at preschool because he has a very unusual pencil grip. When his mother pointed it out to his teacher, she said she has never noticed it. I believe her.

I don’t think my grandson’s preschool is unusual these days. The teachers seem nice enough but they clearly have an agenda about what these children need to learn to succeed in kindergarten. And they may be right if that is the purpose of preschool.

Coming from founding and directing a play-based, developmental preschool, I find this all very sad. In my post about the extension of Race to the Top and the Common Core standards to early childhood education, I worry about how the pushdown of expectations for grade school will impact preschoolers. I know this is already happening in many preschools and daycares throughout the country, including my grandson’s.

Having standards for what typically happens at a given stage of development can be useful to inform teachers’ curriculum planning and to watch for children who do not meet developmental milestones. From personal experience as part of a committee charged with writing community standards for early childhood education, however, I witnessed the misguided implementation of these standards.

Some early childhood educators do not understand that young children still learn best through play and hands-on experience. At this young age, how children are taught matters much more than what adults decide they need to know. Unfortunately, the fastest way to the goal line is teaching to the test using a “drill and skill” approach that squashes creativity and original thinking.

If you believe as I do that, for young children it’s the process and not the product that matters, please stand up for preschoolers’ right to learn the way they have always learned best – though play.


by Laurie Levy
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