Pre-K is a foundational year because, for most children, it provides their initial exposure to school and sets the tone for their educational career. Suzanne Bouffard, education researcher and author of the recently published book “The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children” says we need to take a look at how we do pre-K, not just whether we do it. Quality, she points out, really matters.
Most of the public debate around early childhood education comes down to which is more important, academics or play. For Bouffard, that’s a false dichotomy. “Play is really the way that young children learn,” she writes. “It’s a way that they experience the world, and it engages them and helps them learn more deeply.” She is concerned that the “skill and drill” approach to teaching academics - most frequently used in classrooms serving at-risk preschoolers - fails to teach kids the behavioral self-regulation and critical thinking skills that they need to develop in early childhood.
What effective preschools aim for is “guided play” or “scaffolded play” that engages students’ natural curiosity and encourages exploration. The goal is to “gently push kids’ thinking by offering new information or nudging them to experiment,” Bouffard says. She calls for investment in training to help teachers learn to guide play without overly controlling it and to encourage kids to develop and understanding of letters and numbers without “skill and drill.” “Everyone involved in the fate of these kids needs to have information about what developmentally appropriate practices look like,” she emphasizes. An environment of playful learning is the ideal.