Gains Found in Preschool Learning by Playing

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Allow impoverished preschoolers to learn by playing and exploring their environment, and they will be less likely to experience social and emotional troubles later in life.

But place them in more rigid programs focused chiefly on academics and the chances increase that they will break the law and have problems getting along with others, concludes a new study of three early-childhood curriculum models.

Adults who had attended a High/Scope program, which gives children ample decisionmaking over their class activities, or a play-oriented nursery school, says the study, committed fewer crimes, had better success on the job, and maintained healthier relationships than those who received direct instruction in which teachers led the activities, workbooks were the only classroom materials, and the acquisition of academic skills was the prime objective.

Because the size of the study sample is small--only 68--the authors of "Lasting Differences" acknowledge that the results probably cannot be generalized to the entire population.

"But there's no question from a scientific perspective that you can predict some differences in the amount of anti-social activity from knowing what type of preschool program the children went to," said Marion Hyson, the editor of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, which will publish the study next month.

She added, however, that those who don't read the study carefully "might come to an oversimplified conclusion that the wrong kind of preschool makes crooks out of kids."

The report is the latest from researchers who initiated the landmark Ypsilanti Perry Preschool Project, a longitudinal study of children born in poverty in the small blue-collar Michigan city about 30 miles west of Detroit. So far, the research, which began in 1962, has shown positive and enduring effects for those who attended high-quality, active learning programs, such as the High/Scope model used in the Perry project, when compared with youngsters who didn't have any early education.

While the Perry Preschool no longer operates as a High/Scope program, the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, which produced the study, runs a demonstration High/Scope program in Ypsilanti.

'Plan, Do, Review'

For many years, the positive results of the Perry project have been used as a reason to boost federal spending for Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children. Since 1992, funding has increased from $2.2 billion to $4 billion, and President Clinton has proposed a $324 million increase for Head Start for the next fiscal year.

Although some Head Start teachers receive training in the High/Scope program, most classrooms borrow pieces of the curriculum.

In High/Scope, which was created in the early 1960s by David P. Weikart, the president of the foundation and one of the authors of the study, 3- and 4-year-olds are taught to "plan, do, and review" their actions. Classrooms are arranged to give boys and girls choices among labeled activity areas stocked with such materials as books, blocks, puzzles, musical instruments, and costumes and props that allow children to dress up and engage in dramatic play.

This new research confirms many experts' beliefs that the best preschools offer a child-directed curriculum in which teachers let children's interests guide the learning. Teacher-dominated approaches, the researchers say, impart the idea that someone else is in control of children's lives.

"This is a caution for people to remember that children need many things during the preschool years," said Sue Bredekamp, the director of professional development and accreditation for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children. "If we don't work at helping kids learn self-control, it gets difficult later on."

But she said she doesn't want the study to leave the impression that teachers are not interacting or that academic learning is not occurring in the High/Scope and nursery school classrooms. And she said she hopes the study doesn't further divide people within the early-childhood field who prefer different methods.

'Pressure Learning'

The researchers suggest that programs that exclusively emphasize academics--what Mr. Weikart, calls "pressure learning"--might pay off initially in terms of better school performance. But in the long run, the study says, teachers are missing an opportunity to produce more responsible citizens.

The 68 children were randomly assigned to the three groups: 22 in High/Scope, 23 in nursery school, and 23 in direct instruction.

At age 5, children from the direct-instruction group scored slightly higher than the High/Scope and nursery school groups on an IQ test. But over time, that academic advantage disappeared. Interviews with the participants at age 23, however, revealed significant differences in whether they had committed a felony, misbehaved in school or on the job, or had been treated for emotional problems.

Only 10 percent of the High/Scope group had been arrested for a felony, compared with 39 percent of the direct-instruction group and 17 percent of the nursery school group. None of the adults who attended nursery school as a child and only 7 percent of the High/Scope group had ever been suspended from work for misconduct, but 27 percent of the direct-instruction group had.

Those who attended the High/Scope program or nursery school were also more likely to spend time in volunteer work, compared with those who went through direct instruction as a young child.

Questions about the benefits of High/Scope remain, the researchers say. It's unknown whether the model can prevent crime among all young people or just those from low-income backgrounds. And it's unclear whether a child-directed curriculum should also be used in kindergarten and higher grades.

Behavior Pattern

Not only do the High/Scope and nursery school models appear to help prevent delinquency, but the study's findings also seem to hold even more good news for those who work in law enforcement. The results suggest that child-initiated preschool programs can keep young people from becoming repeat offenders, according to Rolf Loeber, a criminologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote a commentary on the study for its monograph.

Just last month, researchers at the University of Maryland at College Park released a study showing that anti-crime programs aimed at children in public schools often fail to prevent later criminal activity. ("Anti-Crime Efforts Often Found To Fall Short," April 30, 1997.) The report, however, indicated that efforts focusing on children during their earliest years--such as home visits to mothers with young children and preschool programs with a strong parent-involvement component--have greater success.

"We have to turn toward establishing a pattern of behavior," Mr. Weikart said. "[Age] 3 and 4 is the time of setting in place these attitudes and positions."

For More Information:

Copies of "Lasting Differences: The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study Through Age 23," $19.95, are available from High/Scope Press, 600 N. River St., Ypsilanti, Mich. 48198-2898; by phone (800) 40-Press; or by fax (800) 442-4FAX.

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