Experts Promote Math, Science for Preschoolers

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Science, in many early-childhood programs, is confined to growing a lima bean plant in a paper cup or playing at the water table. Math might be no more than counting to 10. And computers are often absent altogether.

But, given the opportunity, young children could be grasping rudimentary mathematics and science principles far more, many experts say. The shape-sorters, puzzles, food ingredients, class pets, and other materials common in most preschool classrooms could be used to introduce children to such concepts as geometry, measurement, chemistry, or biology.

Now, a number of those early-childhood experts and educators are trying to figure out how to work science, math, and computer science into the curriculum for the littlest schoolchildren.

A group of researchers and educators recently took on the task at a three-day conference in Washington on science, math, and technology education in the early years.

Among them were officials of the National Science Foundation, who will hold a workshop next month to familiarize early-childhood educators with the federal agency's guidelines for getting grants and to share ideas about projects.

While it's still too early to tell exactly what will result from the meeting, sponsored by the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, some observers say they're encouraged that the discussion is taking place.

"Because the early-childhood people and the academic-content people don't always talk to each other, I find the whole thing quite exciting," said Emily Wurtz, a senior education associate at the National Education Goals Panel. The panel is charged with monitoring progress toward the eight national education goals, including the first goal: By 2000, all children will start school ready to learn.

But others, worried about needlessly pressuring youngsters, definitely don't want to start seeing worksheets and teacher lectures as a result.

"In general, we would welcome more specificity" in the curriculum, said Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington. "But those guidelines need to be developed in such a way that are respectful of the principles of child development."

One reason math, science, and technology educators and academics feel their disciplines might be getting the short end of the stick in preschool is because well-meaning teachers are spending so much time on reading and language activities.

"The literacy people got there first," said Barbara T. Bowman, the president of the Erikson Institute, a private graduate school and child-development research center in Chicago.

Emphasis on Reading

With President Clinton putting reading at the top of his education agenda and states scrambling to implement new reading programs, it's no wonder early-childhood teachers feel the urgency to stress literacy.

"I think the push for literacy is because without it, a lot of other doors are closed," said Beverly Bruneau, an associate professor of literacy and early-childhood education at Ohio's Kent State University.

"But it would be a shame if it was to negate some of these other pieces," she added.

The fact that language activities dominate the early-childhood curriculum, however, is not the only reason other subjects are often crowded out of preschool classrooms, Ms. Bowman said.

For one, math and science are perceived to be formal disciplines that require abstract thinking. Young children, on the other hand, often learn in an informal manner and deal with concrete ideas.

Another reason, Ms. Bowman said, is that there are no widely accepted curriculum standards for the preschool years.

Standards on the Way

But that could soon change.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which in 1989 became the first professional organization to release national academic standards for students in K-12 schools, is working on a set of standards for preschoolers as part of a complete update of its standards.

The document will focus on such concepts as patterns, spatial relationships, and making comparisons.

"Every preschool in the world has a block area," said Jeane Joyner, a consultant in the North Carolina education department and the chairwoman of the NCTM's standards-writing group for prekindergarten through grade 2. "But we should talk to them about what they are doing with their blocks. We want them to talk about what they are thinking."

It's also important, Ms. Joyner added, for children to develop positive attitudes toward math and not view it as something they can't do.

'Teachers Are Ready'

There is widespread agreement among child-development experts that the early years should be a time for socialization and discovery, and that formal instruction should be reserved for the primary grades.

But as attention to the early years has increased, so has the attitude that certain learning goals for young children should be set.

"Years of Promise," a 1996 report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, noted that a "high-quality program infuses into its curriculum, in developmentally appropriate ways, all of the disciplines that appear as formal content areas in elementary school."

Another report, "Not By Chance," released last November by the Quality 2000 Initiative, a group of early-childhood experts, called for national early-education goals, which would be used as guidelines for setting more-specific standards at the state level.

"We've approached [early education] more from developmental perspectives and not from curricular perspectives. We need both," said Sharon L. Kagan, a Yale University researcher and the lead author of "Not By Chance."

Science activities, for example, are a great way to capture children's attention, says Lucia French, an associate professor of education and human development at the University of Rochester in New York.

Ms. French has been using a science-based program in two Head Start preschool classes in Rochester for the past three years. And she plans to apply for funding from the NSF to refine the model.

At last November's convention of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she prepared for about 200 people to attend a session on her work. Five hundred showed up, she said.

Teachers' interest especially grows, Ms. French said, when she tells them that hands-on science activities help reduce discipline problems in the classroom.

"The teachers are ready," she said. "But the field is not ready to tell them what to do."

Proceed With Caution

Teachers and parents, however, should not get the impression that preschoolers can comprehend math and science concepts in the same way that older students do, said David P. Weikart, the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. The Ypsilanti, Mich., group has created curriculum for and studies preschool programs.

Formal, academic instruction, in fact, may even be harmful to children and contribute to later social and emotional problems, said Mr. Weikart, who last year published a curriculum-comparison study. By age 23, the research showed, children who attended High/Scope or nursery school--which both offer a lot of child choice--were less likely to commit crimes, have troubled relationships, or perform poorly on the job than those who attended what are known as direct-instruction programs in which specific skills are explicitly taught. ("Gains Found in Preschool Learning by Playing," May 28, 1997.)

In general, there is not a lot of research on what parents want from a preschool program. But some anecdotal evidence indicates that low-income parents actually prefer basic-skills instruction during the preschool years, said Nicholas Zill, the director of child and family studies at Westat, a Rockville, Md., research organization.

And the National Household Education Survey, conducted in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Education, found that teachers and parents had differing views about school readiness.

Teachers were more likely to say that children should be rested, well-nourished, healthy, and able to follow directions. Parents, in contrast, were more likely to list knowing the alphabet and counting to 20 as "essential" or "very important" for starting school.

Deborah DeMasi, whose 5-year-old son Steven attends a preschool program in the McLean, Va., area of suburban Washington, said she wants her child to have the skills he needs for kindergarten next fall.

But she doesn't want academics stressed to the point that her son will be "burned out" on school by the 3rd grade. When she looked for a preschool, she was more interested in finding one that would help her only child develop social skills, she said.

"I don't personally think that 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds have the ability to sit still and learn things," Ms. DeMasi said. "But you still want the feeling that they are getting the fundamentals."

Finding a Balance

Early-childhood teachers spend so much time learning about child development that their views about math, science, and technology are often based only on their own school experiences in those subjects, said Rebecca S. New, an associate professor of education at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

In fact, one speaker at the forum sponsored by the AAAS quipped that people might choose a career in early education because they didn't enjoy math and science in the first place. Moreover, many teachers working with young children are not well trained to begin with.

But preschool teachers and child-care workers don't need college degrees in math and science to plan activities in those subjects that would appeal to young children, Ms. Wurtz of the national goals panel said.

"There are two things that kids are profoundly responsive to--stories and noticing what's going on around them," she said. "That's science."

Some teachers believe that it's best just to stand back and let children learn concepts on their own through play. Most base that view on the NAEYC's principles of "developmentally appropriate practice."

Before it was revised in 1996, the document leaned heavily toward giving children free time, emphasizing physical activity, providing a variety of choices in the classroom, and avoiding pushing children to learn specific skills.

AEYC leaders acknowledged that the statement was often misinterpreted by members of the field, so the new version underscores the need for a balance between "child initiated" learning and teacher-directed activities.

That change has impressed Linda Williams, who directs the early-childhood program at the Core Knowledge Foundation, based in Charlottesville, Va. She believes that even if children don't appear ready to grasp a concept, there are steps that can be taken to help get them there.

Used in hundreds of K-12 schools throughout the country, the Core Knowledge program was created by University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., who argues that children need a certain foundation of knowledge that they can build on from year to year.

The preschool program has been piloted for a year in two classrooms--one in Florida and one in Maryland--and is now available to anyone.

Potential for Polarization

Speakers at the AAAS forum, as well as other experts, say they don't want to imply that 3- and 4-year-olds should now be expected to meet definitive academic standards. Instead, most describe this dialogue as an attempt to improve curriculum and to make programs more equitable for children who come from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"I don't like the word 'standards' because of all those negative connotations," Ms. Williams said. "But we should be able to be explicit about what experiences we think all children have a right to, at a minimum."

Despite the NAEYC's attempts to clarify--and, in effect, expand--what it means by the term "developmentally appropriate," Ms. French suspects resistance to more heavily content-driven programs for preschoolers will continue.

But it would be a shame, said Ms. Wurtz, if this discussion about the preschool years follows the same path of another hot education issue--reading.

"I see a potential for the kind of unproductive polarization that has occurred with the phonics and whole-language issue duplicating itself between the child-initiated people and the direct-instruction people," she said.

"That," Ms. Wurtz said, "would be a great pity."

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