Early Childhood

Study Links Flexible Pre-K Classes to Skill Development

By Linda Jacobson — September 26, 2006 3 min read
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Allowing preschoolers to choose their own classroom activities, giving them well-trained teachers, and requiring them to spend less time in whole-group instruction can help build strong language and thinking skills by age 7, according to an international study of early-childhood programs.

Sponsored by the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, or IEA, the large-scale project involved 5,000 4-year-olds in some 1,800 preschool settings in 15 countries.

Researchers in 10 of the countries, including Finland, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Thailand, and the United States, conducted follow-up assessments of children in the sample at age 7.

“We were pleased to find this new evidence from countries around the world that early-childhood educators contribute to children’s development when they emphasize child-initiated activities, limit use of whole-group instruction, and provide abundant materials in the classroom,” Lawrence J. Schweinhart, the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and one of the authors of the article, said in a press release.

The Ypsilanti, Mich.-based foundation, which coordinated the study, is best known for its High/Scope Perry Preschool project, which began in the 1960s and tracked the benefits of high-quality preschool for poor children over a 40-year period.

Focus on Teaching

While the new study, which appears in the fall issue of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, seems to favor more classroom freedom for children, it comes as early-childhood programs—especially state-financed pre-K classes—are moving toward academically focused early-learning standards.

Mr. Schweinhart said that the findings don’t imply that early-childhood educators should back away from standards, but that the standards should focus on teaching practices instead of rigid academic expectations.

“Child-learning standards obviously do not directly specify teaching practices, but following them may lead teachers to engage in ineffective teaching practices, such as whole-group instruction and not giving children opportunities to choose their own learning activities,” he said in an interview.

The paper also provides some explanation for why giving children more choice contributes to their cognitive development, even though children were more likely to pick “physical and expressive activities” than preacademic materials, the study found.

“Free-choice activities provide the opportunity and, often, the necessity for children to interact verbally with other children in one-on-one or small-group play—assigning roles for dramatic play, establishing rules for games, making plans for block building, and so forth,” the authors write.

The informal nature of free play, they add, “provides an opportunity for teachers to engage children in conversation specific to their play and to introduce new vocabulary relevant to the children’s interests, thereby promoting language acquisition.”

Child-learning standards obviously do not directly specify teaching practices, but following them may lead teachers to engage in ineffective teaching practices. ...”

While the major findings were consistent across the various countries represented in the study, there were also a few differences.

For example, in countries where teaching is less adult-centered or where activities require a group response, there was a stronger relationship between adult-child interaction and better language scores at age 7.

And increased interaction between adults and children was related to stronger cognitive skills at age 7 in countries where teachers allow a lot of free-choice activities.

The authors point out that there are also limitations to the study because large regions of the world, such as Africa and South America, were not involved.

Mark Ginsberg, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said that the study confirms what many experts in the field have been saying about the need for higher credentials for preschool teachers, in part because training is necessary to enhance children’s learning opportunities during free play.

He added that the results back up the organization’s long-held philosophy. “Developmentally appropriate practices are appropriate pedagogical practices,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study Links Flexible Pre-K Classes to Skill Development


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