While most agree learning and fun go hand in hand, preschool educators strive for just the right balance
At the Tobin School in Natick, pairs of preschoolers take turns at learning stations offering books, watercolors, blocks, and containers bobbing in sudsy water. Two teachers stand by, helping them articulate feelings and work through disputes.
In a classroom at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, children from Lincoln Nursery School pound sculptures of sand and water, sending up splats of mud. Three teachers follow their lead as they inquire about the world.
Play is the occupation of childhood, the way young minds learn, authorities on development say. But as kindergarten programs grow increasingly academic, educators differ on whether preschool play should be molded and focused, or given free rein.
“There are different philosophical bents at different places,’’ said Lori Davis, assistant head of school at the Tobin School, which integrates educational concepts into play in its preschool and prekindergarten programs. But in any case, she said, “it’s all about play, because that’s how they work, how they interact with the world.’’
Massachusetts public schools are required to base their curriculum from kindergarten through high school on frameworks created by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Educa tion, with children tested regularly beginning in first grade.
Preschools, on the other hand, receive guidelines from the state for helping children develop skills and knowledge through play and planned activities. The guidelines cover areas such as language arts, math, health education, and music.
“Each individual classroom, each individual school, approaches those guidelines differently,’’ said Joan McAdams, director of Happy Hollow School in Framingham.
Just as preschools vary, so does research in the field.
According to a University of California Los Angeles study, children who engaged in free play exhibited smaller gains during the prekindergarten year when it came to language, literacy, and mathematics than other children.
However, a paper by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation found that children who had more opportunities to choose their own activities at age 4 had higher language scores at age 7, and children who spent less time in group activities and had more varied materials to interact with at 4 years old had higher cognitive scores at age 7.
Meanwhile, some specialists contend that focusing on more academic principles too early can detract from the essential development of social skills and self-regulation — such as paying attention, cooperating, and resisting impulses. Also, starting early doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting a head start, some say.
“There’s a widespread assumption that the earlier you learn to read, the better,’’ said Edward Miller, senior researcher with a research and advocacy group, Alliance for Childhood. “There’s actually no evidence that that’s true.’’
Miller’s research has focused mostly on kindergarten, but he’s seen a more academic shift in preschool, too, which he blamed on the increased emphasis on standards and testing — which in turn sparks parental anxieties. In many cases those fears center around a child’s ability to handle the kindergarten structure.
But getting to that point takes a fine balance.
“We need to get kids ready for where they’re going, but also maintain the integrity of what’s appropriate for their age group,’’ said Jenzi Reed, a prekindergarten teacher at Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley.
At the Tobin School, teachers serve as “coaches’’ while math, literacy, and other educational concepts are strategically presented.
Through a “handwriting without tears’’ program, children are constantly exposed to the alphabet: there’s a featured letter of the week, and children play with letter blocks and beads; they also use Play-Doh, wooden sticks, or magnet plates to form letters, and connect letters with sounds. As for numbers, they’re constantly counting, sorting, and making patterns.
There’s also yoga twice a month and art every day, Davis said.
“We try to expose them to as many things as possible,’’ Davis said, “and try to make the environment the teacher.’’
It’s a philosophy that’s worked for Kerri-Ann Tobin (despite her last name, she’s not on the management or staff at the school), whose 4-year-old son, Jacob, is in the Tobin School’s prekindergarten program. He is writing his name and the letters of alphabet, and can count to 20, she said.
“It’s giving children the time to play and enjoy being a child,’’ said Tobin, “but also building in learning pieces to their play.’’
At Lincoln Nursery School, the children do the steering. While students play and engage in activities, teachers help them link their experiences and ideas. In keeping with this philosophy, the school recently began holding classes at the nearby DeCordova Museum.
One recent afternoon, 16 children buzzed around a building set off from the museum: they stacked and lined up toy cars, built with large blocks, or were absorbed in belly-flops, skipping, jumping, or twirling.
Four girls and boys were busy at a table that was a mess of water and sand, filling up containers to create mud sculptures.
“Don’t you love the gucky guck, the gucky is so cooool,’’ one girl said as the group squirted water on their creations with basters, pounded them, and squished mud between their fingers.
A little while later, they gathered in a circle to talk about the day. Some discussed how hard it is to shape mud; a question about a fan turning slowly above their heads even led to a discussion about wind kinetics.
“It’s about pacing and time,’’ said school director Nancy Fincke. “We really want to honor a child’s pace, follow their lead. Our work is to be the protectors of creativity and play and imagination.’’
Becca Fasciano recalled how, when her daughter entered kindergarten after Lincoln Nursery School, the teacher described children coming from such free-play programs as “believing in themselves as explorers and experimenters and learners.
“I have not felt like there have been any issues for my children in terms of ABCs and one, two, threes,’’ she said. “It’s using the children’s ideas to find the path. That’s a really exciting way to learn about the world.’’
Still, most preschools — Lincoln Nursery School among them — want to ensure that by the time children move along to kindergarten, many social skills are instilled.
“You have to learn to be a good friend and a good member of the community before you can do anything else,’’ Tenacre’s Reed said during a recent morning class as 19 boys and girls bustled around her.
The children navigated stations in two-person teams, jointly deciding on where to go. Some worked on watercolors; others on building skyscrapers from magnetic shapes.
Later in the year, Reed said, letters and math are integrated, but to start it’s all about the social skills.
Suddenly, a girl in a polka-dot dress walked over to Reed complaining that “he took the dragon from me.’’
“What do you want him to not do?’’ Reed replied.
“I just want him to stop doing that.’’
“Tell him that.’’
The girl turned, announced “Please don’t take the dragon from me,’’ and scampered back over.
A few minutes later, Reed congratulated another boy on his patience.
“You heard me say ‘Wait a second,’ and you stopped talking,’’ she said. “That was really good.’’
“People underestimate how much work they’re doing when they play,’’ Reed said later. “As an adult, we have an idea of what school looks like, and what play looks like. One doesn’t have to negate the other.’’