Years of research have shown that young children learn while they are doing things, either alone or with other people. (Adults, on the other hand, learn a great deal simply from listening or reading.) For example:
- Miss Margo’s class of three- and four-year-olds were excited when they combined red water and yellow water and got a completely new color —orange.
- The next day, they mixed red play-dough and yellow play-dough, ending up with orange play-dough. They had gotten the same result twice, using a liquid and then a solid!
- On another day, Miss Margo showed the children a piece of paper containing yellow finger paint and red finger paint. She asked what they thought would happen if they mixed the paint. Many of the children predicted they would get orange; asked why, they said it should be the same as when they mixed water or play-dough. Other children said they didn’t know; asked why, they explained that you couldn’t really be sure because finger paint was different from water and play-dough.
- Over the course of mixing colors for a week, the children learned color names and the difference between primary and secondary colors—at the same time they practiced making predictions and comparing outcomes with predictions. Many, but not all, learned which combinations of the three primary colors resulted in each of the three secondary colors.
Since the 1970s, as more mothers have been employed, experts have championed a variety of child-care options: custodial care, an all-play focus, and an academic “preparatory” approach. These options have different philosophies and different goals.
• Custodial care basically keeps children safe while their parents are at work.
• An all-play focus is based on Swiss researcher Jean Piaget’s theory that children learn by exploring their environment independently and with their peers. Caregivers maintain an environment that supports and encourages play. And they adjust the available materials in response to children’s development.
• An academic ‘preparatory’ approach responds to policymakers’ concerns that many children have difficulty learning to read during elementary school—the idea is to start the process earlier, by introducing letters, letter sounds, sight-words, and so forth at ever earlier ages. Studies have shown this academic orientation (sometimes referred to as a push-down approach) is contrary to how young children learn best—and it often succeeds only in making children feel inadequate and dislike school.
• A fourth approach, based on work by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, is sensitive to the developmental strengths and limitations of preschoolers. It recognizes that children learn best when they are actively engaged in meaningful activities with their teachers and peers.
The most familiar version of this option is the project approach, in which children—supported by their teachers—engage in complex, extended investigations of a topic. This approach was developed in Italy and the United States. As they engage in projects, children acquire content knowledge while they develop important skills such as communication, collaboration, and self-regulation.
ScienceStart! is an approach inspired by Vygotsky, with a strong focus on science content. Following a simplified science-cycle, children are introduced to optics, chemistry, life sciences and physics. Literacy, language, mathematics, arts and play are integrated into the science investigations.
All preschoolers make sense of their everyday world, but this is key: At this age they also are highly motivated to learn more about it. They want to dig in the dirt to see how it feels, or watch a worm burrow into the earth. They are sponges for new experiences—and they’re eager to talk about them.
When teachers participate in these experiences, they reinforce their meaning and help kids make sense of them through conversation—rather than through simply telling. By helping children put their experiences into words, teachers introduce appropriate vocabulary. As a result, kids’ understanding of the everyday world becomes for the first time a shared experience. And their knowledge is about the wider culture rather than simply their private experiences.
Sometimes these experiences will be playful, and sometimes they won’t. But they should always be enjoyable. Preschool is not a time for pushing children to achieve academic goals that are, at best, relatively meaningless to them and, at worst, well beyond their ability level. Let’s open doors to rich experiences instead! By following their curiosity, children can create their own experiences as they investigate their environment and make sense of it.
Lucia French is retired Taylor Professor of Education, University of Rochester and a leading authority on child development. She is the lead developer of ScienceStart!