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“Does she go to preschool?” the nurse asked about our three-year-old granddaughter. When our reply was no, she looked as though she didn’t know how to respond. Bob explained as long as our granddaughter was living with us, she wouldn’t be going to school. That only brought more blank stares.

It hasn’t been long ago preschool was an uncommon option. If a child attended one, it was a couple days a week for short intervals of social and play activities for three- and four-year-olds, or all-day programs that provided child care for working parents.

In the 1990s, a mantra from education associations and some politicians was “all children enter kindergarten ready to learn.” This set the stage for the Universal Preschool movement early in the 21st century. Only since California attempted to mandate Universal Preschool did this early education option became thought of as a requirement.

Preschool has evolved from a place of play and friends to formal, sit-at-the-desk academics. Being ready to learn no longer means having a good breakfast. It means entering kindergarten prepared with early math skills, writing skills and pre-reading skills, if not already reading.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, no one thought of sending children under the age of 5 or 6 away from the loving environment of their home. In some states, the compulsory attendance age was seven or even eight. The notion of sending young children away from home for learning is relatively new. So, too, is the idea toddlers and preschoolers need formal academics.

This push for early education has infiltrated the homeschool world as well. Questions such as “My child will be two next month. What curriculum should I buy?” are being asked more often than “What about socialization?” by parents who plan to homeschool their young children.

Parent anxiety has increased to the point that some have begun to believe if academics aren’t started before potty training, their child won’t have a successful future. The push for academics has left important aspects of child development behind, including social development.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play, has been studying play and how it affects human since 1989. His website (www.nifplay.org) says, “Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization.” With the emphasis on formal academics this important aspect of socialization, play, has been lost. When not engaged in academic activities or some other intellectual pursuit (eg. music lessons), young children are engaged in other activities substituting for play. “My child is goes to a play group.” “Not a problem, we have a play date every week.” might be what you are thinking.

As admirable as these activities are, they are still in many cases adult-led. I joined a playgroup with one of my granddaughters just for the fun of it. It turned out to be anything but fun. Although most of the time we met at the park, the children were expected to take part in the pre-planned activity. Children were pulled from the swings and slides to sit and “do” an activity in the name of fun. The play I’m talking about is spontaneous and initiated by the child. It is also imaginative and creative, where the children make up the rules as they go. What does this lack of structure do for preschoolers?

Nurtures social and language skills

As children play together, unhindered by adult rules, they generally work out a system together for the enjoyment of all. This working together requires communication skills, consideration of the feelings of others, and rule-making.

Refines listening and reasoning skills

Even when a child plays alone, you’ll often hear a conversation about what is happening and how it will happen. Two children may play side-by-side, but play different games – talking to each other or themselves during the activity.

Teaches life skills

My granddaughter received a tea set for Christmas. All Christmas afternoon we had various forms of tea parties. It started simply by herself. Then she moved to serving tea to others in the room. Soon she was cooking on the coffee table, not just tea but also soup. With little prompting from the adults in the room, she learned to ask if tea was wanted, to say thank you to the person pouring, how to use a saucer, and much more. These skills will develop as she continues to play.

Promotes health

Childhood obesity is on the rise, and can begin before the age of five. This is not only due to poor eating habits, but also due to lack of free physical play. Physical play can include running in the yard, climbing, and creating outdoor imaginary lands. Even spontaneous wrestling with dad or hide-and-seek with siblings gives a little one much needed exercise. A variety of physical activities helps exercise all parts of the body. While playing tag or a ball game, children are also becoming aware of how their bodies move and function.

The current trend is to plan play activities for children. James F. Christie and Francis Wardle, Ph.D. state in Young Children (1992),

short play periods may require children to abandon their group dramatizations or constructive play just when they begin to get involved. When this happens a number of times, children may give up on more sophisticated forms of play and settle for less advanced forms that can be completed in short periods of time. Shorter play periods reduce both the amount and the maturity of children’s play, and many important benefits of play, such as persistence, negotiation, problem-solving, planning, and cooperation are lost.

Just as you don’t want to be interrupted during work or hobby, your child doesn’t either. And, as indicated by Christie and Wardle, for your child the interruption has more serious consequences.

As you are weighing what is the best way to teach your preschool-aged child think about what is important to your child. Before buying workbooks, sitting down with the Leapster, or signing up for the latest preschool activity class consider which will teach lasting lessons: uninterrupted and unstructured play or the adult-created academic activities?

Susan and her husband Bob began homeschooling their three children in 1981, graduating all three from high school at home. Susan speaks and writes on homeschooling for CHEA as well as for other organizations and publications. Susan is also the author of Science in the Kitchen: Fearless Science at Home for All Ages. She currently serves as CHEA’s Communication Manager and CHEA’s Prayer Chairman. You may contact Susan at susan@skstewart.com. Sue’s most recent work is the book, Preschool: At What Cost? available through CHEA’s online store.