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My Thoughts on Play-Based Preschools

Between my two kids I am entering my fourth year of parent participation in a play-based preschool. I am familiar with the research that supports play-based learning, and think it is fine—for children coming from middle class and beyond homes.

But if you have ever faced down a classroom of third graders living in poverty, where some of them didn’t even know their ABCs, you might reconsider the research saying play-based preschools are best, just like I did.

Looking back at my experience as a Psychology student at Stanford’s Bing Nursery school, a play-based preschool where a lot of early childhood research is conducted, I can remember that even though the professors strongly encouraged the parents not to “teach” their children at home, many of the families were doing this anyway. One three year old girl in my class even had a reading tutor.

The English Language Learner kids from East Palo Alto who were at Bing to help “normalize” the data pool? Well, their parents were savvy enough to get them into Bing, right? How typical is that? Most of the parents I knew in the Ravenswood School District loved their children deeply, but none of them knew how to “work the system”.

The East Palo Alto students I taught spent their preschool years playing in the front yard with their cousins, pit bulls, a garden hose and their pet squirrel. They had play-based formative years, but that didn’t mean they entered Kindergarten ready to learn. Some of them didn’t even go to Kindergarten at all, because Kindergarten wasn’t mandatory in the state of California at that time.

So fine academia… Keep telling me how wonderful play-based education is for all learners. I’ll view all of your research with the wisdom of my own personal experience.

For the record, I think Montessori preschools would be a much better choice. They are a hybrid of choice, exploration, reading, counting, painting, real-life skills, and cultural compassion and understanding. Maria Montessori’s very first classroom in the slums of Italy proved that her methods could help all children learn, regardless of socio-economic level. I’d be happy to pay more taxes to fund that.


  1. tinderbox says:

    I understand where you’re coming from on this, and I do think we as a society need to think carefully about whether our recommendations are what’s best for all kids, or just for middle class kids. I think that your views are widely shared – I’ve often heard jokes that the higher a nursery school’s tuition is, the less they teach the kids, and I’ve also seen the argument made that although suburban kids might do fine with discovery-based education, inner city kids need direct instruction.

    The thing is, one of the major studies that found a later academic advantage to play-based nursery school was conducted in Washington, D.C. – one of the least privileged school populations in the country. So it’s not a phenomenon limited to the middle class, where you might expect that academic preparation is handled at home.

    I think your comments about parents highlight the fact that good play-based early education is not the same thing as just letting kids run wild unsupervised. In a play-based nursery school, the teachers are doing so much to support and facilitate children’s exploration and discoveries – and in particular, there’s a rich current of adult language that your former students missed out on at home. Plus, there’s the influence of materials that facilitate learning. (Although I bet you can learn a lot from a squirrel.) That kind of enriched environment and developmental scaffolding is the kind of thing most middle-and-upper-class parents do at home, and it contributes hugely to the gap in readiness to learn.

    I don’t think we should leave those kids you used to teach in the yard with the pit bull either, but I would love to see them spending time in schools which provide enriched environments, tons of exposure to language and books, and supported play and discovery. I’d love to see more programs that coach lower-income parents on how to enrich the home environment, and provide materials for them to do so. I don’t think the choice should be between the bare yard and the dittoed worksheet in an academic nursery school.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I’m totally with you on the dittoed worksheet thing. I’m not a fan of that type of preschool either.

      All of the HeadStart research has always really confused me, because it is hard to filter through the rhetoric on either side. But as I recall, in the very original HeadStart case study I think the teachers were also making home visits. That is a very big deal! Making a home visit in a scary neighborhood is tough. Now that I’m not a scared 21-year-old-brand new teacher any more, I can see how truly valuable home visits and parent education are. But phew! The one home visit I did in East Palo Alto was enough to scare me off at the time.

      Now just in typing that all out I’m wondering if I should come up with some sort of blog in Spanish…

  2. Claire H. says:

    I think it really depends on the individual child. My oldest was the type to learn via osmosis in an enriched environment. My 2nd (who had a speech & language delay) and 3rd (who has autism) are not. They need systematic, direct instruction to learn things in a way that my oldest didn’t. The one who was the late talker is a very quick learner and as a result, he is at a similar place at age 6 as his big sister was at the same age. I just have to be more systematic about how I teach him. I can’t rely on his picking it up on his own the way she did.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Very true! On a side note, after seeing how effective ABA therapy is, it has always made me wonder what would happen with a neurotypical kid if they were getting 40 hours of one-on-on instruction like that a week.

  3. Michele says:

    I thought it was interesting that you were involved at Bing Nursery. I worked at several of the centers on Stanford University when I was in my twenties and living in the Bay Area. The only thing I remember specifically about Bing were the ducks that used to roam the yard. At least, there was something that roamed in the yard. I loved the teaching experience that I received by working at Stanford. I loved the people and families that we served, from surgeons to students and I met people from all over the world. My fondest memories of the school were taking all the two year old’s out to the stadium and letting them run through the sprinklers and run the track. How is that for a high class preschool education?

    I know that wasn’t specific to your post but I thought I would say hello from a former teacher.

  4. jenbrdsly says:

    Yes, the ducks! I think Bing Nursery School is hands down, one of the best educational environments in the country. I hope I didn’t say anything in my post that makes people think otherwise.

    The education about Early Childhood Education I got at Bing was phenomenal. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some talking points I wish I could go back in time and discuss with my professors. 🙂

    I just looked it up, and right now Bing charges over $7,000 a year for three days a week, half-day preschool. That’s 16 times as much as our play based coop preschool, and 2 times as much as our local Montessori. Ouch!

    • Michele says:

      No, I didn’t think you were saying that Bing was a bad environment. I think all the schools on the campus were high quality but served different needs. I was lucky to have them as my first teaching experience. I thought it was ducks!

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