4 Reasons To Ditch Academic Preschools

I’m still scratching my head that I actually witnessed this…  Years ago, I was investigating preschools for my first child and made a scheduled visit to one of the most popular schools in the neighborhood, chosen by parents I consider to be intelligent and thoughtful.  As I entered the classroom and discreetly sat on the floor behind about fifteen 3-4 year olds, a teacher stood at a chalkboard to present a lesson on ‘shapes’. She drew a square and asked, “What is this?” One of the preschoolers raised her hand and shouted “Square!” The teacher gave a brief nod of approval and continued drawing, this time a circle… A few hands shot up, and she pointed to a boy. “Circle!” the boy exclaimed. To my astonishment the teacher frowned, shook her head and corrected him. “No, round.”

Huh? A trick question? Preschoolers need this?

There were other dismaying interactions between the staff and children in the time I spent at the school. The director manipulated the 2-3 year olds to move onto a climbing structure by pointing to the sand and saying, “There are sharks in the water!” while smiling smugly at another teacher on the playground. Later she admonished a boy who found it difficult to stand still during the long graduation performance rehearsal. “If you do that tomorrow, I’ll embarrass you in front of all the parents!”

Needless to say, I passed on that school. Eventually, I lucked into finding a jewel with an educated staff, child-centered philosophy and developmentally appropriate educational curriculum – play. Although the name of the school did not include the words “creative children” as the first had, this was a center where creativity was truly nurtured, and where preschool-aged children were understood and respected.

Our child’s first school experiences can color his or her perceptions about school and learning for years to come. Child development experts and early childhood educators agree that the preschool years are a time for the development of social skills and hands-on sensory learning that is experimental and exploratory. Here are a few of the reasons our kids don’t need academic instruction in these first school years.

We can’t rush development (or nature).

Kindergarten has evolved from being a time for play, socialization, cartons of milk (loved them!) and afternoon naps to structured lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. The Gesell Institute for Human Development recently “conducted 40-minute one-on-one cognitive assessments with 1,287 children ages 3–6 at 56 public and private schools in 23 states” (as reported in The Harvard Letter). They then compared the results to identical studies published in 1925, 1940, 1964 and 1979. The conclusion: Kindergarten has changed, but children haven’t.

Teaching academics earlier is not helping children develop cognitive skills any sooner. “Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute, says despite ramped-up expectations, including overtly academic work in kindergarten, study results reveal remarkable stability around ages at which most children reach cognitive milestones such as being able to count four pennies or draw a circle.”

Funneling academics down to preschools to “better prepare” children to deal with an already overly academic Kindergarten experience is a waste of time, and this “miseducation”, as Dr David Elkind refers to it in Miseducation- Preschoolers at Risk, can cause “damage to a child’s self-esteem, the loss of the positive attitude a child needs for learning, the blocking of natural gifts and potential talents.”

Stress, discouragement, shame.

Even if we have the most brilliant child imaginable, why risk setting him up to feel confused, embarrassed, and possibly even inept? The boy who enthusiastically answered “Circle!” at the preschool I observed may have felt all those things — even when he gave a perfectly acceptable answer. Giving a toddler or preschooler lessons in academics either at home or at school can create unnecessary stress and feelings of failure.

If there is one thing children need to prepare them for Kindergarten it is self-confidence, and plenty of it. Self-confidence is fostered in these formative early years when parents are patient, trusting their children to develop naturally and autonomously according to their inborn schedule and individual pace. Yes, there are preschoolers who are drawn to memorizing letters and numbers, and there are self-taught readers. Those abilities continue to flourish without formal instruction in preschool.

Untrained staff, weak philosophy.

Since an academic preschool program is counter to the expert opinion and research about how children learn and considered developmentally inappropriate, it reflects a staff that is either lacking in early childhood education or bowing to outside pressure. In my experience, pressure often comes from parents who fear that their child will not be prepared for Kindergarten and might fall behind. The director of a wonderful NAEYC accredited preschool my younger children attended often dealt with parents who expressed concern that their child wasn’t learning anything, “just playing”. I admired the way the preschool held strong to its developmental philosophy and took care to ease parents’ worries by educating them about cognitive development, child-centered learning and the power of play.

Missed opportunities.

The first years are the once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity for children to follow individual interests, explore, invent and discover, and revel in a love of learning while establishing the secure roots necessary for a successful education. As educator Susan Westley explains in her Tallahassee.com essay lamenting the replacement of play with academics in Kindergarten, “It is akin to taking a pink rose bud and prying apart the petals to bring forth a beautiful rose. It doesn’t work. Children, like flowers, need to be given the freedom to grow at their own pace and blossom when they are ready.”

Parents may not have the power to effect changes in Kindergarten, but we do have the ability to choose a positive preschool atmosphere for our children in which curiosity is encouraged, the focus is on enriching experiences rather than performances, and children have plenty of questions, but no wrong answers.

NAEYC indicators for an appropriate early childhood program:
– A wide variety of materials with which children can play and experiment
– Children making choices about activities
– Teachers with training in early childhood education
– Each child’s interests and abilities considered in the teacher’s plans so that each
child can experience success and joy in learning

Young children learn best through direct sensory encounters and not through a formal academic process. Learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play.    – NAEYC

“Respect your child by letting his interest lead the way” Magda Gerber

I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)


(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Sandy Fulmer says:

    I was a primary elementary teacher for 35 year. The area that I live in was just went through a horrible killing if a 3 year old by torture and beatings by the mother’s boyfriend of 4 months. The 5 year old was also beaten and witnessed the murder of his brother. The 5 year old had not been in school for 2 weeks, My question is how would you ever begin to work with this 5 year old after he witnessed such abuse?

  2. Hi Sandy,
    Such horror for a little child at such a young age. I truly hope you will read this reply because there is something that can be done for children and also adults who have been traumatised.

    Evolution supplied us with the necessary tools to heal and repair ourselves.

    This “toolbox” is our emotions i.e. our ability to come into contact and express painful feelings and emotions. Please read any one of Dr. Arthur Janov’s books, or Google “Janov’s reflections on the human condition”.

  3. Interesting. In Australia our kindergartens follow play based learning philosophy with plenty of outdoor play and the children are free to choose their indoor activities… all the good old things like sand play, crafts, painting, role playing etc etc. I hope this never changes!

  4. As teachers and adults our patience over rules the fact that these tender souls are First time learners and we need to be extremely careful in our behaviour and language.
    Therefore I request all to become a preschool Teacher only if you have love for kids and have ample patience to survive you through the day.

    God Bless our Little ones who will blossom into wonderful individuals.

  5. Pure Love for Kids, Passion for Teaching & Patience are the three ‘P’s which are non negotiable for us when we evaluate Teaching staff for our Preschool Chain. It is our single biggest challenge while we aim for growth here in India.

  6. avatar Alice Troberman says:

    My 18 month old son just got accepted to a wonderful play-based preschool.. It is truly amazing- they play outside all day and the only “schedule” or set activity they have is snack and lunch time. The only thing they “teach” is how to talk about/express feelings.. In the same manner that you discuss in your book “No Bad Kids”. My question is- do you think 18 months is too young to start something like this?? I know he would love it and that the school is great, but don’t want to jump the gun.

  7. avatar Lisa Bardebes says:

    Hi Janet,

    I have found a wonderful preschool with RIE trained owner and teachers. My son loves it and it is a beautiful environment but only when I am there. He is three years old. I understand the separation anxiety from both of us but he has made statements such as ‘Mum you didn’t ask me if I wanted to go to kindy’ and ‘I am not ready yet’ he also has asked me to ‘explain kindy properly to him’ which I have done. I have done my best to follow RIE principles and have always followed his lead with developmental stages however I am stuck here. Do I continue with the transition to preschool or do I stop for a while until he feels more in control of the process and work on separations that he is happy with ie: Dad and Grandma??

  8. Oh thanks you for this. ” Bowing to outside pressure.” Yes!! This is what I am struggling with and am about to quit my job because my play based approach is not being accepted. I refuse to lower my educational standards to please others. Thank you!!!

  9. Both of my children attend a Montessori school, as did I as a child. They both adore it, and have thrived. In Montessori, you do follow the child’s interests…..each child is on their own path, and that path is respected. But, it is not play-based….they are learning to read at an early age. Also, Maria Montessori believed that kids long for some structure….that chaos in the classroom doesn’t benefit them. That may not be true for all children…..who knows. But my kids get a lot of joy and pride out of accomplishing “jobs” in the Montessori classroom, including learning to read in the preschool/kindergarten years.

  10. I really appreciate this post being a Montessori early years teacher but I wish people wouldn’t throw around false dichotomies like “play-based” vs “academic” without really thinking about it or asking questions. Montessori said that play is the child’s work and in a Montessori env’t writing happens spontaneously when there are activities available in that children are attracted to and want to play with – so yes there can be early reading and writing in a Montessori school, if the child is so inclined and interested, but it’s never forced, and by definition all knowledge (reading, math etc) is absorbed through play. So it IS play based academics!

    1. avatar Morgan Faulds says:


      I also found it interesting that she chose to include this: “As educator Susan Westley explains in her Tallahassee.com essay lamenting the replacement of play with academics in Kindergarten, “It is akin to taking a pink rose bud and prying apart the petals to bring forth a beautiful rose. It doesn’t work. Children, like flowers, need to be given the freedom to grow at their own pace and blossom when they are ready.””

      … which is really just a paraphrased quote from Maria Montessori. Montessori, when well implemented, is truly the best of all worlds, the most child-centered and developmentally appropriate scientific pedagogy out there.

  11. Hi Janet, u are to me what Magda Gerber is to you.

  12. Informative post with good and deep insights, I totally consents with you. appreciate your efforts which made to write this article.

  13. I have my Masters in Early Childhood Education. Finally information parents can understand. I am retired now but in my years of teaching, I saw the changes coming and tried to hold true to my beliefs. In a public school, the “higher ups” make the decisions and don’t listen to others who don’t agree. In Ohio, Core teaching is the method used. I have turned down teaching Kindergarten, and stated that I don’t agree with the methods used. I retired from teaching 2nd grade,and I enjoyed my time, BUT my heart is still in Kindergarten!!

  14. Just Read,what Rudolf Steiner Grave Humanity about the development in a Child and what it needs. The interlect comes later. Children have enough to do,with getting Used to the Body.Parents are the Model that a Child Learns from. Please let them be children interlectual learning has Time and Should come much later .

  15. Ill never forget sitting at a meeting of parents and hearing a parent (without a professional background in education) recommend a nursery school’s reading and writing enrichment program for 3 YEAR olds. The thought was that this academic program gave 3 year olds a jumpstart in handwriting. If only parents understood that you can’t force handwriting development and that there are FAR more developmentally appropriate and beneficial activities preschool aged children should be engaging in with their time. In terms of fine motor skills, schools should be focusing on fine motor strengthening activities that are FUN! And in general young children should be playing and reading all the time rather than having academic skills (such as learning how to read) shoved down their throats. It breaks my heart that children are missing out on so much in early education these days, but I hope that we make up for it at home.

  16. The report in the Harvard letter requires a subscription, so I didn’t read it yet, but I do need some Information to help the school I work with change a few idea they have about early academics. I really appreciate your advocacy for whole child authentic early childhood education.

  17. Do you consider Montessori style preschools “academic”? THey are child led but some of the “work” items have a concept etc behind it. What are your thoughts on Montessori style?

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