On a typical day at a private New York City preschool, the students are very busy. During reading periods, they work on phonics and blended sounds and practice writing upper- and lower-case letters. Math lessons focus on addition, subtraction, and graphing. And audio recordings help them hone their comprehension and pronunciation during French lessons.
If this seems intense for 4-year-olds, you haven't visited a typical early-learning program lately. Greater academic demands, driven by our testing- and achievement-obsessed culture, have trickled down to the youngest students. A growing number of pre-K programs all around the country are designed to give kids a one-size-fits-all jump start in language, social studies, mathematics, and more. Preschool, in other words, is starting to look a whole lot like school.
What's wrong with parents picking programs like this to give their young child an edge? Plenty, according to many early-childhood specialists. "For kids under 5, play is the foundation for creativity, constructive problem solving, self-regulation, and learning as a whole," says Susan Linn, cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of The Case for Make Believe.
Play also helps preschoolers master the skills they'll need for academic subjects later on. Storytime advances pre-reading skills like rhyming, wordplay, and the ability to follow a plot. A simple activity like playing with soap bubbles can stimulate science learning, while building with blocks establishes a foundation for understanding geometry. Repetitive play (such as putting a puzzle together, taking it apart, and then reassembling it) hones motor acuity, while unstructured group play boosts kids' social skills.
A study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology illustrates free play's learning potential. Researchers had preschoolers try out an interactive toy that could squeak, light up, play music, and more. They showed one group how to make the toy squeak but gave no instructions to the other group. In the end, the undirected kids figured out everything the toy could do simply by experimenting with it, while the directed ones never got it to do anything other than squeak. This suggests that young children are better off experimenting and discovering on their own rather than being shown and told.
"Stressing formal learning can turn off preschoolers, many of whom aren't physically ready to hold a pencil or sit still and complete worksheets," says Lorayne Carbon, director of the Early Childhood Center at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York. Plus, an early academic approach doesn't seem to improve classroom performance. A study from the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville, found that fourth-graders who have attended play-based preschools outperform fellow students both academically and socially. And a study published in Early Childhood Research & Practice found clear links between pretend play and enhanced language ability. Your child's future success in school doesn't hinge on your enrolling him in a pre-K that teaches him to add and subtract or know the chemical formula for water. It's more productive to find a program that lets him have fun as he learns. Follow these steps to find one.
Look at Self-Descriptions
Search for a school that bills itself as "play based" or "developmentally appropriate," both of which feature unstructured activity as part of the school's educational philosophy. Other designations that indicate an emphasis on play are Waldorf (organized according to the principles of pioneering philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner), Reggio Emilia (an approach that lets kids help set the curriculum), and Bank Street (which stresses art, dramatic play, music, movement, and sensory experiences).
Preschoolers need a chance to play outdoors every day, not only to get fresh air but also because it fosters cooperation, learning, and creativity, and sparks an interest in the natural world. Make sure the outdoor area provides a variety of opportunities to run, reach, climb, and explore. One thing Abigail Woodworth, from Yardley, Pennsylvania, likes best about her son Leo's preschool is its location on several wooded acres. Twice a day, rain or shine, the children go outside. "Leo comes home every afternoon with a pocketful of treasures, such as leaves, rocks, and pinecones," Woodworth says. "He's learned the names of different trees and clouds, why it rains, and so much more, simply by going out and exercising his curiosity."
A good one to start with is, "What does a typical school day look like?" Ideally, about a third of it should be devoted to free play, during which the kids get to choose their own games, materials, and playmates, says Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, research-project coordinator at the National Institute for Early Education Research, a nonprofit in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Some time should also be devoted to teacher-led explorations. Find out whether the school follows a strict curriculum and whether the instructors can base activities on students' interests.
Look for Red Flags
You don't want to see an abundance of computers or TVs. If you spot them, inquire how they're used and how often. "Screens can interfere with hands-on play," says Linn. The same goes for electronic toys that do much of the thinking for a child. Also check out the artwork on the walls. "If the paintings and drawings look similar to each other, as if they were copied, or the projects appear to have been constructed from a kit, this program may not encourage creativity," adds Linn.
While it may sound counterintuitive, too much order in the classroom can also be a warning sign. If most of the materials are neatly stored in drawers and on shelves, they may not be readily accessible to the kids.
Nikki Wills, a mom in Chandler, Arizona, knew she'd found the right place for her daughter when the director warned parents not to send their kid to school in outfits they didn't want to get ruined. She was sending the right message about play-based learning: "These kids are here to get messy and to have fun."
Get the Lay of the Land
The materials that make up the classroom, and the way they're set up, can tell you a lot about a pre-K's priorities. "When you visit a school, check that there are enough materials to keep children engaged for a three- to six-hour day," advises Figueras-Daniel. Do you see lots of low-tech toys, such as blocks, dolls, puppets, musical instruments, and simple cars and trucks? Are there costumes and play stations -- a mini kitchen, a pretend classroom -- that encourage imaginative play? Look for water and sand tables (which help children learn about science by pouring, measuring, and observing) and nesting and stacking toys (these promote pre-math skills and hone fine motor coordination). Is there a generous selection of books? How about arts-and-crafts materials such as crayons, paints, fabric, feathers, clay, scissors, and glue?
Small details often make a big difference: On her first visit to her kids' preschool, Wills was struck by what a teacher told her about the coloring station. "She said they place the cup of pens to the left, because a child reaches for it and then moves naturally to the right to draw, which helps reinforce left-to-right reading," Wills explains. "So the kids are mastering a pre-reading skill without even realizing it."
Watch the Kids
When Kathy Sucich, of Framingham, Massachusetts, was searching for a preschool for her oldest child, she was surprised by what she heard (or, rather, didn't hear) after walking into a classroom. "It was playtime, but the kids were almost silent," recalls Sucich. By contrast, when she peeked into the school that all three of her kids have now attended, "I heard laughing and saw kids playing and running around," she says. Look for signs that students are truly engaged in what they're doing.
When your child is leaping through puddles or wielding an imaginary wand, she's not just having a good time; she's setting the stage for learning. Check out the educational benefits of some common preschool activities.
Grouping buttons by color or stocking the shelves of a pretend supermarket by food category helps kids learn to recognize patterns, a key component of mathematics.
When they drop ice cubes into a tub of warm water, pour liquids from one container to another, or play with the stream from a hose or a faucet, children are figuring out flow and motion, two basic physics concepts.
Imaginary play enhances language skills and vocabulary, while pretending to be a cashier can instill early addition and subtraction skills.