As part of our FIGT Focus on Play, educational consultant and FIGT member April J. Remfrey shares how an eye-opening personal experience, along with a lot of expert support, reinforces the idea that play is not just important, it is worth defending.
FIGT Focus Blogs highlight the various voices of our community and reflect the personal views of the author, not necessarily those of FIGT.
By April J. Remfrey, MS
Shortly after our daughter turned three, my husband and I decided to enroll her in preschool. She was an early talker and was showing interest in books and writing. Each night before bed, she insisted we read her a certain number of books. She also wrote on anything she could get her hands on – even the walls. It was obvious she was ready.
Our search began with three different local schools, each with its own unique method of early childhood education: religious, forest immersion, and Montessori. We researched the pros and cons of each but tried to reserve judgment until seeing them for ourselves. Having nine years of experience teaching general and special education, I developed my own opinions on early childhood education. However, I went in with an open mind, understanding that each child is different, and we were choosing a place specific to our daughter's needs.
The Idea That Learning is "Academics"
Our first visit was to a preschool right down the road from our home. It was late afternoon when we pulled into the school parking lot for a group tour. We were a bit nervous, palms sweating and all, as we stepped into the whitewashed building with its green trim, surrounded by towering pine trees. Our first impression was encouraging, the building looked clean and welcoming, and the head of school and bubbly tour guide seemed engaged and enthusiastic.
Everything was fine until we went into the first classroom. The room mirrored the exterior of the building: whitewashed with green trim. There were no pictures on the walls, no inviting, child-friendly seating, no toys stowed away in the corners. It felt like a classroom for fourth or fifth graders, not one for three-year-olds to grow and play. Trying to better understand what I was seeing, I asked about their daily activities.
In her overly excited voice, the tour guide told us that the program's goal was for all of the three-year-olds to master their letters and numbers by the end of the school year. Although I'm fairly certain I was not hiding my surprise, she continued her prepared speech. She pointed to a small circular table in the corner, informing us that teachers used it to work one-on-one with students who were not progressing in their learning. At this point, I know my face showed my disgust. Letter and number mastery at three years old? I looked around at the other parents nodding their heads in approval, but I recoiled at the idea of trying to teach three-year-olds the beginnings of academics. Would some be ready? Maybe, but it seemed like not only a futile act but possibly even detrimental since most kids aren't developmentally ready for this type of learning until they're between five and seven years old!
But Experts Agree...
In 2015, The Atlantic published an article aptly titled, "When Success Leads to Failure." In this piece, Jessica Lahey writes about her experience during a parent-teacher conference when she explained to a parent that "her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement." Ms. Lahey questions how our society demands success from students at any cost. She concludes that we, as teachers and parents, have taught children that achievement is the only acceptable option.
We've known that praising effort over intelligence is best practice for quite some time. In 1998, a New York Times article cited a study published years prior from Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck regarding this idea. Since then, this research was preached repeatedly at school staff meetings and has been in my vernacular for the last twenty years. We know best practice is to praise effort but is that truly happening in school settings?
Fast forward to 2007, and I am physically dragging my husband out of a preschool tour because neither Dr. Dweck's research nor Ms. Lahey's insights had permeated their whitewashed walls. I can't even remember if we finished the tour or if we left right then and there. What I do remember was the hiss of my disapproving whisper into my husband's ear: "She has her whole life to hate school! Why would they want to start that at three years old?"
Here in Switzerland, preschool and kindergarten emphasize socialization and developing self-help skills. A similar system can be found in Finland, which is known to produce well-socialized and emotionally intelligent students. You would never find a Swiss teacher forcing a three-year-old to memorize numbers and letters. For that matter, you wouldn't have found that in the US when I was a child either.
...That Playing IS Learning
We need to let children be children. We've become so afraid of them being left behind in a highly competitive world that we're setting unrealistic academic expectations for children as young as three years old. Instilling a love for learning and school starts very young, but approaching education the wrong way could teach children to hate school from the very beginning. Most parents and educators would agree that we want our children to love to learn. It's essential to recognize that we can foster a love of learning by providing opportunities not tied to success or failure, but to the sheer enjoyment of figuring out something new.
So please, turn away from the preschools that lure families in with developmentally inappropriate promises. Look instead for the preschools that foster learning through play, social-emotional growth, and curiosity for learning and life. Thankfully, we found a preschool set back in the woods, where the children engaged in play-based learning, and our three-year-old loved to go to every day! I'm stepping off my soapbox now.
April J Remfrey, MS, is an educational consultant that focuses her time working with international schools and globally mobile families with neurodiverse children. She has created an ILP/RTI goal documentation cloud-based program for international schools called STEP and works with international schools to help improve their inclusive practices.
She has a BA in special education and elementary education from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, USA and received a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA in Exceptional Education. She has been a teacher for over 20 years in three countries and has experience in the public, private, and international school environments.
April serves on the International and European boards of directors for SENIA: Special Education Network and Inclusion Association.
Since 2013, April, her husband, and daughter have lived in the Zurich, Switzerland area. Never one to sit still, April likes to hike in the stunning Swiss Alps, cook gourmet food, and play clarinet in the local concert band.
See more at www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com.