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Is preschool curriculum child’s play? Neurocognitive research suggests otherwise

Wed, April 17, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Pacific Concourse (Level -1), Pacific M


Preschool instruction is often considered a commonsense task and gets limited attention in policy development. Preschoolers must become ready to learn the grade 1 curricula and ultimately to perform in the 21st and 22nd centuries. The needed competencies argue in favor of early emphasis on academic domains. However, evolution has had different plans. Young mammals (including children) practice through group play the behaviors needed throughout the millennia for adult survival. The evolutionary tendencies are now challenged in multiple ways: Urban children grow up alone and play mainly in supervised situations; and the ancestral gender division of labor that is manifest in preschoolers is no longer desirable. However, disregarding these tendencies has a cost. Children who have engaged in limited free play have socioemotional difficulties and may not interact well with others. Also various studies show dubious outcomes of academically oriented preschools.
The academic orientation in preschools and homes has additional complexities. Reading difficulties (often in English spelling) lead to the advice that children should start reading in preschool. Complex language and executive functions must be developed concurrently, and these require time and specific attention. (By contrast, numeracy is mentioned less often). And structured tasks must fit into school hours or family life. So setting priorities is important. How much should preschoolers study or play, which subjects, and in which settings?
My presentation will discuss the pros and cons of various curricular subjects. Numeracy may be the most important skill in early development. This along with spatial understanding predicts later performance, and girls will particular benefit. Also the children's "mother" language must be developed for complexity and knowledge, so that its cognitive network can be used later to attach other languages. On the other hand, reading may be left for grade 1. In transparent orthographies, the entire domain is taught in 1-2 years. (On the other hand, the motor movements of writing seem important early on.) Judicious time use for numeracy and language development is necessary because a significant amount of time (unclear how much from the research) must be devoted to unstructured free play with other children.
An issue of further discussion is related to the competencies of teachers and parents necessary to teach and sufficiently exercise numeracy and spatial concepts. Ease and fluency is needed, so that the children receive sufficient practice. It is unclear how these can be developed institutionally and in what timeframe and expense.
In conclusion, ECCE must somehow reconcile the evolutionary trajectory of children’s development with the 21st century requirements. There is a need for policy debate and research that does not seem like a “child’s play” at all.