If you see a group of young children playing pretend together, what is your first thought? Are you enamored at how well they are playing together and admire the joy they are experiencing? Or are you frustrated that they are spending their time in a frivolous manner when they should be learning the alphabet or numbers? 

Many countries around the world are facing this same debate on how they approach early childhood education. Some in the education field argue that preschool-age children need to be well-prepared for future education and that this means focusing on academics—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Others in the field believe that play based learning in early childhood is the highest form of learning in these years. They argue that preschoolers’ pretend play store is the epitome of effective learning. 

As governments around the globe face these questions regarding early childhood education, it is helpful to take a step back and understand what the research tells us about how young children learn. As parents and educators, we can use this research to inform educational decisions for our children and students.

Play as Learning

The research on early childhood learning involves a complex web of studies related to how children learn, child development theories, as well as understanding what educators are teaching in classrooms and how this may influence outcomes like test scores. Both classic and modern studies of children’s play show clearly that learning happens amidst play. As far back as the 1920s, developmental psychologist Jean Piaget discovered how interaction with the world helps children learn at different stages. More recently, scientists have shown how children systematically learn about new objects through play. This type of learning through play, researchers say, is not haphazard. Children often go through a very systematic process when learning about a new toy, for example. 

Another study showed how children’s learning about science concepts is maximized when new concepts are introduced through guided play. Guided play is the idea of having a teacher (or parent) present questions or ideas to children in a play-based setting. For example, while children are playing pretend store, a guided play facilitator (teacher) might ask questions about the number of bananas in the basket, how much the items cost or the colors of different items. Guided play, therefore, utilizes a child’s natural inclination and engagement in play with the introduction of new ideas and problem-solving strategies. In one interesting study kindergarteners were found to increase their literacy skills through participation in a play-based literacy program. 

From all this research, it seems clear that children do, in fact, learn through play. However, what about more concrete measures of learning, such as test scores? Some policymakers contend that children need direct, academic-focused instruction (not play-based learning) in order to rank well on standardized tests. The research on this is also very revealing. At least one long-term study found that indeed, children who attend more academic-focused preschools fare equally well as others on standardized tests in the early years of elementary school. This result, however, only lasts for 1-3 years following preschool. In other words, after a few years, the advantage that academic preparation offered washes out. Additionally, by sixth grade, we see children who attended academic-focused preschools tended to make worse grades compared to those who attended play-based preschools. 

One German study illustrates this point even more clearly. In a study of 50 kindergartens, researchers compared the test scores of children attending a play based learning setting in early childhood (i.e., kindergarten) versus a direct instruction academic kindergarten. The results showed that, despite early increases in test scores, by fourth grade the students in the direct-instruction group performed worse than the play-based group on every measure tested. Especially notable was the finding that students in the direct-instruction group also fared worse on social-emotional skills. 

Why the Push Toward Academics?

With the mounting evidence showing the short-sighted nature of academic-focused preschools, why does there still remain pressure to incorporate more direct-instruction, academic-focused content into early childhood education settings? In many countries it seems there is a widespread fear among parents and educators of children “falling behind” and not being able to compete for jobs in the global marketplace or even be replaced by automation. In reaction to such fears, more academic-focused curricula seem to be the answer. The thought is that this approach ensures that preschool students are being presented with the information they need to be prepared for their next level of schooling. This “push-down” approach relies on an assumption that earlier is better in terms of children’s education. As we have seen, this approach largely ignores child development research and what is known about how young children learn. Simply put, curricula designed for a 7 or 8-year-old cannot simply be pushed down and made accessible to a preschooler. The brain of a preschooler is quite different from that of an elementary-age student and cannot comprehend the same information.

Furthermore, the push to incorporate more and more academics into preschooler’s days is not based on data from successful countries either. Across the globe, countries whose students fare best in terms of academic tests are those that support a more play-based approach to preschool. 

In Finland, for example, children do not begin formal school until age 7. Prior to that, most are in government sponsored daycare or preschool settings. In these settings, play is the top priority. Children play outside, they sing songs together and they spend a lot of time pretending. Through all this, their teachers say, they are learning about social interaction, science, and yes, a few pre-literacy concepts. Formal training in reading, however, does not begin until age 7, compared to many countries who begin reading instruction at age 5. Despite this, Finland has some of the highest literacy rates in the world. Their students regularly garner the top scores in global standardized tests for high-schoolers.

Similarly, Korea has topped the ranks of Program for International Student Assessment scores (PISA) for several years. Its approach to preschool and kindergarten also follows a play-based, child-centered approach. Students learn math and literacy concepts primarily through songs, hands-on activities and outdoor play.

Reframing Play

Although the evidence is clear that children learn best through play in the early years of learning, there remains a debate in many places about the value of play based learning in early childhood. In the U.S. in particular, this debate is still obvious as scholars call for a return to play-based, child-centered models of learning and many policymakers implement more standardized testing and direct-instruction models. This debate, however, doesn’t have to be framed as such a black-and-white issue. It is possible to find a middle ground between a completely play-based approach and an academic model. Children need to be prepared for later schooling and gain pre-literacy and math skills in preschool. Most researchers argue that these skills can be gained in a playful approach to learning. As we have seen, this guided play approach is most closely linked to both short-term and long-term academic and social-emotional goals

As parents and educators perhaps the best way forward is to reframe play as a valuable form of learning. Instead of attempting to take sides between play and direct instruction, perhaps we can all approach the topic from a more holistic perspective and try to understand the best way to prepare our littlest learners.

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The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice

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