Books vs. Blocks: Is the Question "What to learn?" or "How to learn and unlearn?"

Peg Oliveira, PhD
Executive Director

A new study from the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) found that by the end of kindergarten, children who attended one year of what researchers defined as “academic-oriented preschools” outperformed their peers who attended less academic-focused classrooms. On average, the children who attended academic preschools ended up two and a half months ahead of their counterparts in math and literacy. This divergence in academic progress begs a few questions. First, what are each of these programs doing, or more importantly not doing, that differentiates them? And second, would a two and a half month difference matter in a child’s development?

The idea that academics and play exist on opposite ends of the teaching spectrum is tidy, but a myth. The difference may be less between a pendulum swing from books to blocks, and more between those children with well-trained and well-paid teachers and those without. Furthermore, our research has shown that children as much as six months apart in cognitive development are not really all that different from one another.  So the question here is not one of choosing sides; but instead to strike a balance between the skill building of qualities of academics and the brain boosting qualities of play.

The new study conducted by researchers at UCB monitored 6,150 kids from around the U.S., born in 2001, from birth to five years of age and was controlled for income and home environment. Language skills, along with growing understanding of mathematical and literary concepts were assessed in children’s homes at about two, four and five years of age. Researchers discovered marked gains when middle-class kids attended preschool classrooms where teachers spend considerably more time on spoken language skills, pre-literacy skills and knowledge of mathematical concepts. The New York Times and other publications are touting these results as a tug of war between “Free Play or Flashcards?” saying that the “New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools.” The article goes on to say that the best path forward puts children on course to read and do simple math problems by the end of kindergarten. The primary vehicle to such would be an academic focus.

Increasingly, Kindergarten teachers are being pressured to teach more, sooner. Researchers at the University of Virginia compared the views and experiences of kindergarten teachers in 1998 with those of their counterparts in 2010. Their findings discovered more sophisticated skills expected at younger ages. Generally, Kindergarten teachers now expect children to come in knowing much in regard to academic content and skills like math and literacy. The dramatic play area in the kindergarten classroom is a quaint thing of the past. This push down of academic expectations is being communicated in tangible ways to preschool teachers. They, too, are now responding with spending more of the day on academic instruction, leaving less room in the day for non-academic activities such as music, movement and art.

In an effective play-based, or “child-centered” classroom, children choose activities based on their current interests. The play-based classroom looks like the preschool of memory; a home or kitchen center, a science area and water table, a reading nook, and of course lots of blocks. While it may seem like the teacher’s job is a piece of cake; don’t be fooled. Good teachers are in the mix; appropriately encouraging kids to explore and scaffolding their knowledge all while facilitating social skills.

On the flip side, there are academic programs or “teacher-directed” learning, in which teachers instruct the children in a more structured way by leading them through each activity. For the most part, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, distinguishing shapes and colors, telling time, and other skills. However, not all children are ready for this in kindergarten. Asking them to do so can be unnecessarily stressful and a distraction from the more developmentally appropriate work of the brain in early childhood, like sorting and stacking.


In truth, my concern is less about what they “do”… the flashcards or the free play… and more about what kids “don’t” do. After all, childhood is short. There is only so much time to learn to play fair and share. If that precious time is spent on memorization in baby lecture halls, then it is not spent on pretend play and fresh air. We only have so much time to spend each day; each of us. Kids too. The time spent on “academically-oriented” activities is time taken away from other activities.

While flashcards may progress a 5 year old to 5.2 on the cognitive scale, maybe 2 months of growth in one area is not worth trading 2 months of loss in another. I wonder, would two and a half months of extra “performance” change a life? Our research says that developmental differences in young children as long as 6 months are 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. Two 5 year olds, one performing on cognitive scales at 5.5 and another at 5.7 look pretty much the same and suggest no differences in developmental ability.

In our long history of observing children, we at the Gesell Institute of Child Development have seen little change in patterns and pace of what kids are ready to learn; compared to the big changes in expectations of what kids should know and be able to do. Despite the push down in expectations, including academic work in kindergarten and preschool; our research and our experiences suggest remarkable stability around the ages at which most children reach cognitive milestones such as being able to count pennies or draw a triangle. While children may be able to “demonstrate” academic skills, even as complex as reading, it does not mean that they have built up the foundations of literacy that later translate into comprehension and application.

Reliable and objective developmental assessments allow teachers to truly know a child; so yes, we measure. But, as Dr. Arnold Gesell once said “a child is more than a score.” A useful assessment is comprehensive. We at the Gesell Institute of Child Development assess developmental growth over time, in a breadth of domains beyond beginning literacy and numeracy skills,  including physical/motor, language/comprehension, and social/emotional.  This whole child approach drives us to transition from a narrowly defined academic achievement focus, to one that promotes the long-term development of the child as a lifelong learner.  In this unpredictable world, skills and knowledge have an increasingly limited shelf life. Attempting to map out the competencies children will need in the future seems futile. Of all the skills we teach in early childhood, the most important is the skill to learn and unlearn.

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