The forthcoming demise of academic preschools is not my wish or my campaign; it is a simple fact. Why?
Two main factors will turn the tide towards a greater percentage of preschools to be play-based rather than those who promote academic teaching. The first of these is that increasingly children who attend play-based preschool have significantly better long-term success, both academically and personally than students of academically based preschools. These numbers can be seen in small studies of particular programs, such as Regio, and nationally as is the case with Scandinavian schools. As more longitudinal studies pour in parents will naturally choose for better outcomes for their children.
The second reason that play-based learning will become the dominant form is science. In recent years, and accelerating rapidly, more and more studies are showing that play is the best way to foster development. We now know so much more about who development proceeds, especially neurologically, and that science reinforces play-based preschools for a beneficial and self-reinforcing loop.
For me, the most significant breakthrough has been a new understanding of the cerebellum. Until recently the role of the cerebellum was thought to be motor control. While that is still a primary function, we now know that the cerebellum is a “complete” brain so to speak, with functions that are emotional and sensory. Indeed, the cerebellum contains more than four times the number of neurons as the cerebral cortex, which we have previously thought was the base of intelligence.
The learning that takes place in the cerebellum is stimulated primiparity by gross motor activity like that found in play. Indeed, the cerebellum has a “menu” of activities it prefers such as sliding, spinning, swinging, climbing, jumping, running and wrestling. We have identified 20 of these brain building patterns.
While the cerebellum is actively learning all these skills, it has a playmate, the cerebral cortex, but not the whole cortex. The connection is to the right hemisphere.
The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in the past and future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination, and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect and come alive. Through the right brain, we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present. While the left brain is more interested in outcomes or product, the right brain cares much more about the process—the journey is what matters, not the destination. – Vince Gowmon
The critical insight here is that the logical left cortex doesn’t mature until about seven years old whereas the cerebellum and has been playing footsie with the right cortex from birth and that fully matured at 3 to 4 years of age.
From an educational standpoint, this means that any attempts to teach numbers and letters to children younger than four will fail because there is no functional brain there to learn. From 4 to 7 years fact-based leaning can be gradually introduced.
No, that doesn’t mean that during these years you can sit kids down at a desk and make them study. What we have failed to factor when thinking about learning and teaching is that it is not all about brain wiring and creating mental connections. Learning, especially in the early years is also chemical. When connections between neurons are made, they are not hard-wired, rather they are facilitated by chemicals which pass between the neurons. What these chemicals do is contain the message that is moving being conveyed.
From a learning standpoint, the most important of these chemicals are Endorphin, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Dopamine. These neurotransmitters are sometimes referred to as the “feel good” chemicals. The bottom line here is that playful learning feels good and is fun. For this beneficial pattern to set in, it must be self-directed. Adult-directed and controlled teaching is anathema to learning in the younger years and likely far into adulthood.
The preceding is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolution science is bringing to the understanding of child development. As the flood gates of research open ever wider, and as the children from play-based preschools demonstrate superior outcomes, academic preschools will become a rarity.
Humankind has been trying for a couple of hundred years, but in the end, you can’t fool mother nature.