An Examination of Playful Academic Learning     

By Dr. Dustine Rey published in the June issue of Talega Life

When did preschool learning become the new nature or nurture debate? Decades of research have indicated that both nature and nurture contribute to the development of a human. Similarly, the past forty years of research have demonstrated that play and social learning contribute to the intellectual development of a preschooler. Play and learning are not separate from one another in early childhood development. This concept leads to confusion for parents looking for a preschool that stimulates intellectual development, as many schools promote their program as either “academic” or “play-based.” What is in between? Can they both exist together?

Can play stimulate emotional, social, and intellectual development?

Yes.  Is that considered academic? This is where human development becomes more complex.  Short term academic goals appear differently than long term intellectual goals. However, research points to the lasting benefits of intellectual goals as better predictors of later academic success.  Intellectual goals include reasoning, analyzing, predicting, questioning, and a range of moral sensibilities. Whereas academic goals include more concrete skills such as knowing days of the week, the calendar, writing and memorizing facts.  Current research indicates that both academic and intellectual goals can coexist within a thoughtfully planned and balanced learning environment. This type of environment requires a highly skilled teacher that observes student interests, assesses learning frequently, and presents material in a play-based way.

Research on play and play-based preschools consistently show that the frequency and complexity of play in the early years predict later school achievement, creativity, self-regulation, and critical thinking. Conversely, preschools focused on direct instruction and teacher-directed activities produce immediate results, though such effects are found to be short-lived, usually disappearing around second or third grade. Meaning, children who are reading at age four are not necessarily better readers by age seven. More concerning, is that a reexamination of data on direct instruction reveal that many preschool children do not enjoy direct academic instruction, producing stress and disinterest later in school. As educators, our goal should always be to nurture life-long learning and healthy human development.

Preschools with purposeful play components lead to academic outcomes that are in most cases, greater than those of direct instruction.  The most well-known of these studies is a longitudinal investigation of High Scope, a play-based preschool curriculum. Children attending a High Scope classroom for a single year were found to have higher levels of academic and social competence in later childhood and adolescence than those not attending preschool. At age 40, these participants showed higher earnings, higher employment rates, fewer incarcerations, and higher educational attainment.

Moreover, thirty years of research shows that children who attend preschool’s categorized as “play-based” “developmentally appropriate” and “child-initiated ” yield greater academic outcomes in elementary and middle school than children who attend preschools categorized as “didactic” “academic” and “teacher directed.” When intellectual, academic, social, emotional and physical goals are balanced and supported in a developmentally appropriate play-based way, then learning thrives.

Learning needs to be engaging, curiosity-driven and appropriately assessed for the greatest impact. In high-quality preschools, learning is playful and exploratory as teachers skillfully weave in academic, intellectual, social and emotional goals. They intentionally create invitations for children to explore and create their own personal meanings with materials. A well-designed playful environment stimulates healthy child development, which should be our most important goal.