If Academics-Focused Preschool Is “Crushing Our Kids,” What’s the Alternative?

The ideal preschool classroom should have more art and fewer letters.


The education world exploded this weekend with the Atlantic’s publication of Erika Christakis’ “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids,” adapted from the early-childhood expert’s soon-to-be published book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups. Christakis’ article describes a recently (and radically) altered society where, instead of staying home with mom, “[n]early three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care.” And instead of discussing the sound of crunching leaves and exploring the texture of sand, these young kids are bombarded by what Christakis describes in the opening paragraph as:

a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Christakis then goes into distressing detail about the pitfalls of this “new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years”: “[N]ow that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier,” she writes. This obsession with “school readiness” leads to an intense pressure for kids to be reading by the end of kindergarten; those who can’t do so increasingly “flunk” kindergarten—an unheard-of notion in my youth.

But the crux of Christakis’ article compellingly streamlines an argument that many of us have seen more and more evidence of in recent years, which is that inculcating kids with hardcore academics at too young an age may ultimately do more harm than good. Like that Tennessee preschool study that got so much attention earlier this fall, which concluded that many preschool attendees had lost whatever gains they’d made in early childhood by first grade, more and more studies are suggesting that kids subject to the “academic takeover” of early learning tend to lose their enthusiasm for school earlier than their peers.

I took great interest in this article because, among other reasons, I am the parent of small children in Washington, D.C., which comes as close to offering universal pre-K—available in many neighborhoods not just at age 4 but 3—as any municipality in the country. And I mostly feel very, very lucky to be here at this time in my kids’ lives. Certainly from a pocketbook perspective, preschool access is life-alteringly great—as I’ve written elsewhere, the availability of high-quality preschool at age 3 played a not-insubstantial role in our financial calculus to go for child No. 2.

And the program my oldest child attended was wonderful in most respects, with lots of sensory time and outdoor play and socialization and art—and in an integrated setting hard to find later in life. But if, when my son was in PK3, I felt proud that his teacher pulled him and two other kids from nap to practice reading (what a young genius I’d incubated!), I disliked, in PK4, that my iPad-deprived child would ignore the boxes of blocks and Legos all over the classroom and beeline to one of its four computers to play “math literacy” games for the first hour of the day.

And I got downright spooked when I attended a “kindergarten preview” where the teachers told us that we could kiss the Reggio Emilia–inspired fun and games of preschool goodbye. Kindergarten was serious business: We could expect at least 30 minutes of homework every night, in math and English. Around that same time, on a snowy day while his sister was napping, I asked my son what he wanted to do and he shrugged: “Maybe you could print out some phonics worksheets for me?” When, a few months later, we lotteried into a school with a play-based kindergarten, we took the spot.

Now, at 6½, my son, at a bilingual school that seemed (but might not turn out to be) less assessment-driven than the achievement gap-obsessed school we left, is what his teachers call a “strong reader” in both English and Spanish. But does he like reading? The jury’s still out on that one. Maybe it’s just that he’s equal parts defiant and hyperactive, but I don’t remember my mother asking me to read at his age; I remember doing it because I identified so deeply with Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

“You’re supposed to read this book your teacher sent home,” I’ll say.

“But it’s booooring!” he’ll cry.

“Fine,” I’ll give in, “let’s do handwriting instead.”

Christakis offers a compelling prescription of the problem: We are drilling kids with too much academic information at too young an age. The solution, she says, is higher-quality programs where “adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication,” where the focus is “not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.”

Rather than direct children in predetermined tasks, preschool teachers should use “sophisticated vocabulary” to enable open-ended, child-directed explorations. The relationship between teacher and child is far more important than whatever flavor-of-the-month curriculum the district is currently promoting. Christakis writes:

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

But, in a world where so many mothers work outside the home, is academic preschool really worse than the alternative? Leaving kids home with grandma and a TV blaring all day, or sending them to day care centers where the teachers are almost always less credentialed and less educated than public-school teachers. Given that a shocking 2 out of 5 U.S. kids live in poverty, I still can’t help but feel that the wrong kind of preschool is superior to none at all.

As for my own kids, I’m pleased to learn that the private preschool that my 3-year-old currently attends three mornings a week meets Christakis’ description of an ideal early-learning environment. She writes:

They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

But the school also costs money, and it requires either a backup child-care system for the other hours of the day, or a parent who doesn’t work. It requires, too, extensive teacher vetting and training that isn’t feasible for many publicly funded programs. So how, in our heterogeneous, high-poverty country, can we get our kids to be more like the “joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland”? I’ll be reading Christakis’ book for more concrete answers.