Sitting around chatting with other homeschoolers, I almost invariably get asked, “So what curriculum do you use for your preschooler?” And stumble around for words, trying to explain what it is exactly we do. I know it comes out sounding more like, “Oh, we don’t do anything at all!”
Except that isn’t true. What I really want to say is something more like this. Preschool means pre – school. Before school. To have curriculum before school seems, well, somewhat disingenuous. I believe that children at that age should be running, jumping, climbing and exploring. They should be splashing in puddles, making forts under your furniture and asking, “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”
Quite simply, play is the work of a child. Especially a young child. And to push curriculum . . . textbooks and workshets . . . too early interrupts their natural intellectual and emotional development.
This has been backed up by research over and over. As Germany was beginning to move away from play-based kindergartens (note that “kindergarten” in Germany is more like preschool here and takes children ages 3 – 5) and more toward instruction focused early learning, they conducted large scale research involving 100 kindergartens. While those who attended the more academically focused kindergartens did indeed show early advantages over their peers, these gains were not only lost but reversed by 4th grade. By then, graduates of play based kindergartens fared better on every measure used, especially in reading, mathematics and social development. The results were so clear that Germany moved away from the direct instruction model and has stuck with its play based model even to today.
Studies in the US have shown similar results, though they are complicated by the fact that most of the studies focus on poverty and it can be difficult to differentiate between the effects of early education programs and the lasting effects of poverty. Still, they indicate the same results. Children in more academically focused programs show early gains that seem to disappear by third or fourth grade, while those in play based preschool programs demonstrate better academic and social development.
America, however, never has made any serious effort at reversing the trend toward direct instruction at earlier and earlier ages. Particularly schools in poorer areas get bogged down in test prep. I had to provide 45 minutes of test prep instruction a day as a first grade teacher. Schools are under incredible pressure to perform and they are passing that pressure down to students at earlier and earlier ages. Research or no, stepping away from academic instruction in favor of increased play time is a tremendous leap of faith that schools struggling with low test scores are just not willing to take.
Why do homeschoolers get caught up in the feeling that we need curriculum for preschoolers? Quite frankly, I think it’s because we’re inundated with it. Have you noticed that television programming and even toys aimed at young children now come with a list of the educational objectives met?
That and the message that really what your child needs is opportunities to explore and play guided by a parent willing to engage them in discussion, acting as guide in this crazy world doesn’t sell product. It doesn’t sell toys. It doesn’t sell television. It doesn’t sell books. And it doesn’t sell curriculum to those beginning homeschoolers who still feel like they’re competing with the public school system even as they’re experimenting with stepping out of it.
So what do preschoolers need?
If you care enough to ask the question, you are probably already doing everything your child needs, but this is what I believe preschool children need to help encourage their academic and social development:
- A variety of toys to encourage fine and gross motor development as well as imagination.
- A library, whether at home or provided through regular trips to the library.
- To be involved in daily chores and activities.
- Someone to answer their questions, even if the answer is, “Hmm, I wonder?”
- Someone to narrate events and describe what is going on at home and on outings.
- Outings. Around the neighborhood, on walks, to the store, to museums, to zoos.
- A variety of textures. Sand, mud, water, dirt, play dough . . . whatever you have.
- Crayons, markers, pencils and paint.
- Time. Enough to get absorbed in a task of their own choosing.
- Someone who will listen.
- And most importantly, love. Love and support and encouragement.
Take heart. And have the courage to set the curriculum aside and focus on the play.