Most of us will likely not recall our preschool experience, if indeed we had one. It was a rare occurrence for someone of my generation to have the experience, and yet by the time I had children of my own I found myself in the competitive world of applying and vying for a coveted spot in the “best“ local preschool for each of my children. As a young educator trained in the early 1970s I was looking for Summerhill, the legendary free school started in England that was based on the philosophy of free-play and self-democracy. I found myself instead conflicted by the new reality that if I didn’t get on board with preparing my children for the increasingly competitive world of academics I was dooming them to living in my basement and hanging off the back of a garbage truck to make a living. Apparently the Age of Aquarius was over.
In the past thirty years the pressure to prepare very young children for competitive placement in the academic world has created a race to the top for the youngest of children. We are driven by a culture that values and rewards by the numbers; standardized assessments, grade point averages, class rankings and SAT scores as students, and income and credit scores as adults. There is little argument that preschool priorities have dramatically changed in the past three decades with the emphasis on academic learning taking the lead. Play, once seen as the primary mode of learning for young children, has taken a back seat to formal instruction. The question is at what cost?
In 2011 a Manhattan preschool was sued by a parent who alleged that her daughter was not sufficiently prepared to take the rigorous E.R.B., an intelligence test that was required for admission to many private schools throughout the country. The mother quoted studies that drew conclusions of an adult’s financial success with the quality of the nursery school they attended. The parent had paid $19,000 with the understanding that her child would be primed to take the test; she was aghast when she visited the school and found the children spent most of the day playing.  She most likely was aware of the content of kindergarten admissions tests from postings on the internet by parents to warn others of the daunting expectations of the tests. How would you react if you found this sample from an actual kindergarten admissions test (AABL -Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners)?
1. Do you see the empty box? Point to the star that would go in the empty box.
Preschool priorities have been changing in subtle and dramatic ways with highly instructional preschool curriculum at the forefront of the change and play is, at best, perceived as a waste of precious time that could be better used to provide direct skill instruction. While academics for toddlers and preschoolers has become the norm, researchers argue that the long term outcomes don’t hold up to the promise of a bright future.
Researchers followed children who attended different preschool environments. Some children were enrolled in an academic setting, others in a child-initiated play setting, and a third group in a preschool that balanced both approaches. By the middle grades children from the play-oriented preschool were receiving the highest grades. They also showed the most social and emotional maturity. Those who attended the academic preschool lagged behind in a significant way--poorer social skills. The academic group did not attain the same level of education as the play group and required more years of treatment for emotional impairment. They also faced more felony arrests than the other two groups. 
Even among educators who agree that critical learning is lost when play is not sufficiently incorporated into the preschool curriculum, their concerns are eclipsed by the pressure to assess young children through standardized measures. Toy companies pushed the benefits of educational toys designed to boost developing brains as scientists identified the “critical years” for the child’s synapses to develop. A heavy burden was placed on parents to provide opportunities for their infants and toddlers to learn through direct instruction. Suddenly we were witnessing the overscheduled child; three- and four-year-olds shuffled between highly structured adult-directed activities with the only “down time” occurring in the car, with educational CDs playing. Children were expected to enter kindergarten with the academic skills that were once expected of a first grader.
So what do young children learn through play and why is how they learn so important to their development? David Elkind in “The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally” explains:
“Through play, children create new learning experiences, and these self-created experiences enable them to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire in any other way.” 
Piaget defined intelligence as a kind of adaptation to the environment. The simplest everyday experiences of children promote their innate drive to make sense of the world they live in. When left to their own devices they find stimulation from their surroundings and actively experiment through play. Taking time away from child-directed learning and replacing it with rote learning robs them of self-discovery and mastery.
There are signs that the pendulum may be swinging back to child-centered play. Free-range playgrounds are popping up in Europe and very recently in Denver, CO where children are encouraged to engage in “risky play”, allowing their imaginations to direct their learning experience.  And this week in Utah, a “free-range parenting” law was passed. The law defines what constitutes child neglect in the state and was inspired by the family that was reported to CPS for letting their 10- and 6-year-old children walk alone to the neighborhood park. The new law clarifies the state definition of neglect and states “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities” such as playing outside or walking to a nearby store.  Imagine that!
Rusty Kindlon is a Senior Staff Developer for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated
Please learn more about our program evaluation and professional development services on this website.
Anderson, Jenny. “Suit Faults Test Preparation at Preschool.” New York Times, March 14, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/nyregion/15suit.html
WIRED: "Education Week: Educating Too Early" https://www.wired.com/2011/09/education-week-educating-too-early/
The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/1-1-article-elkind-the-power-of-play.pdf
Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Roberta Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, with Diane Eyer
FreeRange Playground http://www.freerangeplayground.org/
De La Cruz, Donna. “Utah Passes ‘Free-Range’ Parenting Law.” New York Times, March 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/well/family/utah-passes-free-range-parenting-law.html
A.S. Neill - Founder of Summerhill School -1964
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan
Christakis, Erika. “The New Preschool is Crushing Kids, Today’s Young Children Are Working More But Learning Less.” The Atlantic, January/February 2016 Issue