Preschool Philosophies: Play-Based vs. Academic

Evgeniya Usmanova

CareLuLu Mom-In-Chief
(Co-founder & COO)

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T ypically, preschools describe themselves as either “play-based” (also known as child-centered and developmentally appropriate) or “academic” (also known as teacher-directed and traditional). Most early education philosophies fall into one of these two categories. What’s the difference and which one’s better?

Child-Centered / Play-based / Developmentally Appropriate

The most common teaching philosophy is child-centered and based on play, whereby children do activities of their choosing. In a fairly unstructured program, children learn at their own pace. They can select from several activities and can play alone or in small groups. The whole group often comes together for songs, stories, or other “circle time” activities. Doing activities based on children’s interests develops their love for school, builds creativity, and increases motivation to try new things. Play-based programs have a lot of unstructured hands-on play, group story-time, and themed activities. This approach typically helps children develop their social skills including communication, sharing, empathy, and listening. I’ve discussed examples of specific child-centered philosophies in my earlier post here.

You may have also heard of project-based curriculum, whereby children learn by exploration and collaboration. This type of program is child-centered with the teachers serving as a guide and offering help only when needed. The program allows children to negotiate rules and directions for the project, work independently and come to decisions on their own. Generally these types of programs offer lots of field trips.

Teacher-Directed / Academic / Traditional Approach

In “teacher-directed” programs, teachers lead the children in a more structured way, planning the activities and guiding the children in doing them. Lesson plans are often theme-based focused around a season or a particular topic. Teacher-directed classrooms have a more structured and predictable feel where students are expected to remain seated and follow a set schedule of activities planned by the teacher. Such structure aims to prepare children for the kindergarten setting. For the most part, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, distinguishing shapes and colors, counting, and doing worksheets. Play generally takes place only during recess time.

So which approach is better?

Each approach focuses on different sets of skills and there is an ongoing debate as to which ones are most important in determining the child’s future school success. There are a number of major research studies that show contradictory results. Some studies found behavioral, social and emotional skills (generally learned through play) as one of the best predictor’s of later school success, while others found it to be early academic and attention skills (taught by the teacher-directed approach).

In recent years, pressured by parents to prepare their children for kindergarten and school, preschool programs have become more and more academic in nature. However, some studies show that, “Teaching academics earlier is not helping children develop cognitive skills any sooner.”[i] According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which promotes excellence in early childhood education, “Young children learn best through direct sensory encounters and not through a formal academic process. Learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play.”

A common misconception parents might have about a child-centered curriculum is that children don’t learn much through play. This is simply not the case. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study reported that the social skills children learn in the early years are the greatest indicator of later school success. The study found that children who had the social skills in place were more able to focus on their work when they started the academics.

Regardless of the program you decide to enroll your child in, keep in mind that their success not only depends on preschool, but also depends very much on parental support and on your child’s persistence, confidence, self-control and self-esteem. Children who are confident and perseverant tend to do better down the road, so choose a program that offers a positive atmosphere which will help build your little one’s confidence and boost his self-esteem. Also keep in mind that preschools, especially those child care programs where children spend long hours (i.e. 7am-5pm or more), generally incorporate both play-based and academic curriculums. They tend to offer a mix of teacher-directed activities, for an hour or two, and lots of unstructured play-based learning for the remainder of the day.

If you’ve had experience with a particular teaching philosophy, please let us know whether you liked it and why or why not?

About the author

Evgeniya Usmanova

CareLuLu Mom-In-Chief
(Co-founder & COO)

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