What makes a “high-quality” preschool?

High Quality Preschools Should Be Grounded in Play

It’s a question asked by parents of three year olds about this time every year. They’ve been told that it’s time for their child to begin preschool. Maybe they have even been counting the days.  There’s a notion very prevalent in the U.S. that we need to start  educating our children early. President Obama talked about it in the State of the Union address this year, vowing to make “high-quality” preschool available to every child in America.   There is research indicating that early education does help down the road.  But what kind of early education?   What is a “high quality”  preschool?  Does it mean your child will be reading at 4?  That she can read a map, add and subtract, spit back facts about the rainforest?   Or does it mean that she will be developing capacities like physical dexterity, self-regulation, social competence, and rich imagination?

Early childhood educators and child development experts on the whole believe that play is the most important work of early childhood, providing the skills and capacities that are essential for later success in school and in life.  Play is also the natural state of childhood.  Just as the baby lion’s pounce on his mother’s tail prepares him for pouncing on prey later on, a young child who figures out how to build a playhouse out of cloths with some friends may be preparing himself for solving complex math problems in high school or for negotiating differences in the board room.  If children are left to their own devices, they will play, just as the baby lion will pounce.  This should tell us that perhaps this is what they need to prepare them for adulthood, just as the young lion’s play prepares him.  There is wisdom in paying attention to what happens naturally when adult agendas are not imposed.

Sadly, the trend in education over the past few decades is to impose a fear-based adult agenda of “start earlier and do more.”  This has resulted in kindergarten being the new first grade, and moving steadily in the direction of preschool being the new first grade.  One reason for the fear is falling test scores.  A good question to ask is, how has “start earlier and do more” affected test scores so far?  A better question is, are standardized test scores the measure we should really be looking at for whether our children are well-prepared for the future in our rapidly changing world?  The truth is, we don’t know that pushing academics down into preschool is going to help at all.  What we do know is that doing so will crowd out the activity that will help the most,  play, and that this can actually harm children.

Diagnoses  like  ADHD, depression, and bipolar disorder continue to become more common in children.  The suicide rate for adolescents has continued to rise, so that suicide is the third leading cause of death for people 10 to 24.  Obesity rates are rising, along with all the accompanying health problems.  Children and adolescents are more stressed than ever, and these are the children who have steadily lost play at the same rate that they have been burdened by more and more homework and academic expectation.  They are the children who have spent their childhood in front of screens  and doing hours of homework instead of making mud pies and exploring the woods.

Young children need to play. They need to spend lots of time outside. They need to learn to wait, to help a friend, to do work that really matters. Children need to make pictures in their imaginations when they hear a story. They need to crawl up on a dead tree across the path on a nature walk and wonder what might live there.  They need to feel what it’s like to move their bodies through mud, through deep snow, across slippery ice.  They need to watch adults doing real things and then try it themselves. They need to become deeply absorbed in something of interest—how the grain turns to flour when you grind it, how tall you can build a tower before it falls over, how the color blue meets the color yellow in their painting. A “high-quality preschool” will provide plenty of time for all of this and more. It will provide children with the raw materials to build worlds from their imaginations. It will provide them with a healthy rhythm that supports their best behavior and their joyful attention. A high-quality preschool will provide plenty of movement and plenty of time outdoors in all seasons. A high quality preschool will respect the natural pace of childhood, and by so doing will encourage  health,  happiness, and a lifelong zest for learning.