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Guidelines Seek To Define Role of Academics in Children's Play

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A national association of early-childhood educators issued revised guidelines last week that draw a clearer picture of how academic work can be incorporated into child's play.

Meeting in Dallas for its annual conference, the 100,000-member National Association for the Education of Young Children released a revamped position statement outlining the methods the group believes are best suited for teaching children from birth through age 8.

The statement is designed, in part, to address what NAEYC officials consider to be misinterpretations of their previously published lists of developmentally appropriate and inappropriate practices for programs serving children in that age group.

At issue is the extent to which young children should face specific expectations for learning and receive formal instruction.

Critics of the NAEYC's original position contend that it reflected the sentiment of an organization that is concerned only with social development and thinks teachers should just stand back and let children play.

Lucia French, a developmental psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York, is one early-childhood expert who challenges past NAEYC materials.

"The way people interpret it is that teachers should not have goals for children," said Ms. French, who is trying to implement a science-based curriculum at Head Start classes in Rochester.

First released a decade ago, the position statements were meant to provide guidance to early-childhood programs seeking accreditation through the Washington-based NAEYC and to "get down on paper" the essence of what research said about teaching young children, Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the group, said.

Generally, teaching techniques that relied on rote learning, worksheets, and flashcards fell into the inappropriate category. The appropriate approach included hands-on projects, opportunities for physical activity, and a less formal structure that allowed children to choose how they wanted to spend their time.

The revised statement attempts to strike a balance between "adult-initiated and child-initiated learning," according to a statement issued at last week's conference. "Inappropriate practice is most often a result of an either/or choice that does not draw on multiple perspectives," it says.

Examples of the extremes to which teachers can go, such as limiting art activities to coloring within predrawn figures, are now included to help people avoid those mistakes, Ms. Willer said.

The new document also includes learning goals for children at each age level. And it places more emphasis on the role of the teacher.

The old list of practices was "never meant to be a cookbook," even though that was how it was used, particularly by novices in the field who might not have had a background in child development, Ms. Willer said.

Hirsch's Criticism

The modifications may not go far enough to satisfy some detractors.

In his new book, The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them, E.D. Hirsch Jr. rebukes the organization and other professional associations for following a "progressive" philosophy and espousing a curriculum that, he writes, discourages academic instruction for young children.

Mr. Hirsch, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, contrasts early-childhood education in the United States with French preschools where children do early handwriting exercises, conduct science experiments, and learn mathematical skills.

"They see it as unnatural for children to learn these things," Mr. Hirsch said about the NAEYC in a recent interview.

But officials of the group maintain that the approach advocated by Mr. Hirsch and his Charlottesville, Va.-based Core Knowledge Foundation does not take young children's capabilities into consideration.

Widely acclaimed by advocates of a more traditional education, the Core Knowledge Foundation defines a specific body of knowledge that students should acquire as they advance through school. The organization is now crafting a preschool sequence, too.

Search for Balance

The clash of beliefs over early-childhood education came to a head earlier this year in Georgia.

Conservative Christian groups, focusing on the state's lottery-funded prekindergarten program, slammed NAEYC's materials and claimed that the group discourages teaching letters and numbers to 4-year-olds, including such activities as singing the ABC song. ("Ga. Chief Takes Aim at NAEYC Materials," Feb. 14, 1996.)

The uproar led state Superintendent of Schools Linda C. Schrenko to declare that the preschool program was intended to be academically based and that administrators should steer clear of values and other nonacademic topics.

Observers compare the opposite views on early-childhood education to the phonics vs. whole language debate in which recent research indicates that a combined approach is most effective. ("The Best of Both Worlds," March 20, 1996.)

Michael Levine, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said there should be a blend between the "spinning and drifting" approach in which young children are permitted to set the pace for learning and the traditional "drill and kill" methods.

For More Information: "Developmentally Appropriate Practice for Early-Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth Through Age 8," will be available in January. Order #234, $8 prepaid, from NAEYC, 1509 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1426.

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