We constantly hear about how our children are underperforming academically relative to the rest of the world. We want our children to be ahead of the academic curve, not behind it, and some have reasoned that if traditional academics are started sooner, children will be ahead of the curve. This too often involves reducing playtime for preschoolers and kindergarten students and giving them workbooks or seatwork to give them “an edge”. As a professor whose research focuses on early childhood education, and the mother of a three-year-old, I find this approach problematic for two reasons. First, I want my child to have time to just be a kid—we all know that kids grow up so fast, and yet we are not giving them time to play and have fun. Second, I know that the research says my daughter will actually learn more from playing than completing a workbook, and she will actually be better able to learn the skills required for literacy and numeracy.

It sounds counter intuitive that preschoolers learn more, and better, from play than they do from worksheets and seatwork, but it’s true.

When my daughter came home from preschool with a worksheet, I cringed. Does she need to work on her fine motor skills? Yes, she does. Do I think that writing the letter ‘b’ 25 times will help with that? Probably not. For those of us that grew up with the “drill and kill” teaching method (remember the “mad math minute”?) this just doesn’t make sense. We used workbooks and did seatwork at an early age, so we reason this has to be a “proven method.” The problem is, the research done since we were kids just doesn’t support that.

So why don’t workbooks and seatwork help preschoolers learn?

  • They are too structured and based on the idea that all kids follow the same path to learning. Kids this age are still learning a variety of skills, and may excel in some areas and lag in others. Workbooks require that all children complete the same sequence and quantity of activities, which depending on the child may be too many or too few to acquire the skill the workbook intends to teach. While my child may require several experiences with rhyming before she fully grasps the concept, your child may already be competent in this skill. If children are already competent in a skill, having them complete worksheets on the skill is a waste of valuable learning time.
  • Workbooks assume, even necessitate, the existence of other skills. Workbooks require reading skills (even if they use pictures) and fine motor control. You can have a brilliant child who knows every letter and the sound that it makes, but if he or she is a bit behind in fine motor skills, completing a workbook is an unachievable task. Conversely, you can have a budding artist who can replicate every letter in the alphabet, but still doesn’t know that ‘b’ and ‘d’ are different letters.

So if workbooks don’t help kids learn, what does?

First, if we can equate learning with fun, we’re ahead of the game. In my own research, I’ve found that students in classrooms where play is separate from learning often associate learning with ‘work’ (something they’d rather not do), and more serious than play. It doesn’t have to be this way and we can help kids learn without workbooks.

A key predictor of academic success, and social development, is self-regulation: the ability to inhibit impulses and focus on a particular task. Again, workbooks assume that the child has already developed a heightened degree of self-regulation, and is capable of focusing on transferring thoughts and knowledge to paper. If you know or have ever been around a three-year-old, you know self-regulation is not a skill they have mastered.

Research on the development of self-regulation describes the importance of sociodramatic play. This type of play involves playing with other children (or grown-ups) to create story lines and solve problems.

For instance, when children are playing “house” and pretending to be a family, they must agree on who is the parent and who is the child, what activity they are doing as a family, and how they will solve any problems they encounter (i.e.: they are making dinner for the baby, but the baby doesn’t want to eat it). In order to achieve this play scenario they must inhibit their knowledge of who they really are, think as their play character would, and agree and stick to the storyline, which often involves agreements and concessions. Failing to abide by the “rules” they have established through social negotiation will result in an end to the play scenario while they renegotiate (sometimes known as an argument).

These types of play scenarios support self-regulation by developing a child’s abilities to sustain their attention on the play scenario, control their emotional responses when the play does not go their way, and behave in a manner that is conducive to the social setting and makes them a desirable playmate. From an academic perspective, these same skills can translate to focusing on the task at hand, not getting frustrated when something is hard, and working with others (like a parent or teacher) to overcome difficulties to achieve success. All through playing house.

Research tells us that developing certain skills like language early on is critical to children’s later academic success . The two greatest predictors of future literacy learning are letter-sound correspondence (identifying what sounds each letter makes) and phonemic awareness (knowing that words consist of sounds that can be recognized and manipulated to communicate). Phonemic awareness involves skills like rhyming, segmenting sounds (i.e., pulling apart the sounds in words), and blending sounds (i.e., putting the sounds in words back together).

The problem is that both of these skills—letter-sound correspondence and phonemic awareness—are oral language skills, and workbooks are written, not oral. The requirement that children learn and demonstrate these oral skills on paper doesn’t make sense. These skills should be learned and demonstrated orally.

For example, children can be asked what sound they hear at the beginning of familiar words like “Mommy” (/m/) or “Daddy,” (/d/). This is far more indicative of their understanding. Reading books or poems with rhyming patterns and asking children to identify the rhymes or stopping so children can fill in the rhymes themselves can support the development of rhyming abilities. Clapping out each sound in familiar words can support the development of an understanding of syllables (e.g., ba-by).

For the more complex abilities like word segmenting, children can be given a small number of blocks placed in a straight line and be asked to push forward a block every time they hear a new sound. This allows children to focus on the sounds without having to also think about the letters they represent, which is necessary when writing on a paper. While the ultimate goal of segmenting sounds is to allow children to hear the sounds in words, identify the letters that represent those sounds, and then record those letters on paper, using workbooks means we’re skipping ahead to the final step without properly developing the initial skills. It is far more developmentally appropriate to build the oral language skill, and once they are comfortable, transfer that skill to writing.

Workbooks also claim to help with fine motor skills, like the ability to grasp a pencil and write a word. While this is an essential skill to master, it can be accomplished through developmentally appropriate play activities that are far more enjoyable than worksheets. For example, using tweezers to pick up pompoms or threading beads on a string. Using hands-on learning allows teachers to target fine motor development without inhibiting the child’s ability to demonstrate academic skills, such as emergent literacy abilities.

If we’re being honest, when choosing a childcare provider, we’re all a little swayed by the ones that tell us that their programming will help prepare our kids for school, and give them an advantage. We’re all the parents of “shining stars” who amaze us with how smart they are, how advanced they are. Maybe there’s a little guilt that we are asking for help in raising our children, and so we try to make choices that will make their lives easier in the future. There are many important skills that children must develop in the early years to be successful learners. However, the use of worksheets to develop these skills is not the ideal path. Instead, learning that meets the child at their level and seeks to extend their abilities in a manner that is hands on and/or play-based will more effectively support our children’s academic and social development.

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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Toddlers + Preschoolers