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. 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?

    1. Katherine M says:

      This is why all teachers need to be trained on “Trauma Informed” educational, supportive, and discipline practices. There are school districts where a majority of the children enter school already having experienced some form of trauma:(

  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!

    1. NZ is the same. I only wish that primary schools and high schools were more focused on moulding the teaching to the brains of the children, instead of expecting them to mould their brains towards the teaching offered.

  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.

    1. Where can you search for a play-based school? I have been looking for one for my daughter & have been at a loss. Please help! Thank you!

  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.

    1. Is your chain nationwide? I am looking for a school like this for my daughter. Thank you.

  6. 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.

    1. Absolutely not too early. We should talk about feelings with kids from birth. When teachers at these type of schools teach these skills there is never talk of a behavior or feeling being bad, just the labeling. Now if a kid hits another kid the teacher may talk a child through a more pro-social way of handling the emotion/feeling that caused him/her to hit, but NEVER say that behavior was naughty or bad.

  7. 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. 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.

    2. Thirty years ago, my children attended Montessori pre-primary. Neither was ready to read in Kindergarten; the teachers continued to offer them the works they would need to read, but the teachers were unconcerned that they couldn’t read before entering elementary school. They told me reading was mainly developmental, reminding me, some children walk at 10-months-old, and others walk at 14-months-old, both are normal, and the chronological age is irrelevant. I can’t imagine either one of my children being educated in today’s American school system with its standardized curriculum and testing.

  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?

    1. Most toddler (18-36 month-old) and primary (36 months -6 years old) appear to have an academic component, but if you read the objectives in a Montessori lesson plan they have nothing to do with the academics. There is a leaf work in the primary room that children trace the leaf works or I have seen leaf rubbings done. The objective has nothing to do with the leaves, but is developing concentration and the ability to set up, complete, and put away a project/lesson. Also, there is a huge outdoor component to most Montessori school during which the children free play most of the time (outside gardening projects). Montessori is 100% child lead up to first grade- if the child wants to work with a sensory work the whole school day that is fine. If he/she prefers drawing – great. My child chose to do the more academic math and literacy works from the get go in her primary years and was reading and doing math operations and geometry works first, then chose to engage in more sensory, cultural, and exploration/research. Other kids only use the cultural works such as flags for the drawing component and could care less about the country they represent, what foods people eat there, what animals come from there etc, and that is fine. I know both types of kids who are now in middle school gifted programs so the child-lead component must work…..

  18. Kindergartners should also primarily learn through play, not just preschoolers. This is developmentally appropriate for 5-6 year olds. Too many kindergarten teachers have to hide their choice/play centers because misguided district leaders Who do not know what is appropriate teaching and learning in K. They think more time spent engaged in academic activities will somehow make them smarter and make them learn faster. We are harming our kindergartners. A there revolution is needed so that decision makers can stop making harmful, counterproductive decisions. The teachers certainly know best!

  19. Lori Jacobs says:

    I am a huge opponent of academic preschool, as well as the current(AND last generation) level of academics in K.

    But the thing in this article that stands out to me is not that the teacher was teaching about shapes- but her negativity! The correct reply was ‘yes! It is a circle! What other words could you use to describe it?’

    First of all, the kid is 100% right and she is wrong!! The answer to the question “what is this?” is in fact ‘a circle”. Assuming it was 2 dimensional, if 3D then it’s a ball or sphere. When have you ever heard someone say “that is a round”??

    But in addition to that, ‘no, it’s a…’ is never how you should talk to any child, especially a young one. Sure doesn’t encourage any further thinking in them. It’s an ‘ours is not to wonder why, just reverse and multiply’ approach and we in any educational field should know better. Doesn’t mean you should pretend an actual wrong answer is correct, it means you should ask more questions so the student actually comes to the correct conclusion themselves. “What is 2 + 2?” 5 is the wrong answer. Tell a kid just that, and their learning in the moment is shut down by embarrassment and self criticism. Saying “that’s pretty close, how can we check?”,, or “how about you hold up two fingers on one hand and two on the other and count them to check” means the child can realize his first answer wasn’t correct- but because he finds the correct one on his own, and the feeling he’s left with is one of success and confidence in his ability to work things out, even mistakes.

    Why any educator would want anything different is completely beyond me.

  20. Lori Jacobs says:

    Oh- and of course be sure the child is developmentally capable of the task! Not to have the right answer, but at minimum already have the skills to count those 4 fingers.

  21. Hi Janet

    What would be your advise for a parent like me who is unable to find a school that values play. I live in Abu Dhabi UAE, and all schools here are academic focused. My 4 year old son will be joining from September. I have always provided him an unstructured free play environment at home. How do I make sure he can have the same after he joins school. The timings of schools are long too from 6:45 morning till 1 afternoon.

    A worried mother

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