Preschool: Academic or Play-based?

Updated on October 22, 2013
J.O. asks from Novi, MI
18 answers

I always thought play-based would be ideal and would not dream of anything academic.
But for a 2 hour program 2 or 3 days a week, I feel differently after having had my kids actually start elementary school.
Kindergarten in the new first grade. There is LOT they learn and if they don't come in with a lot already, it's an uphill struggle and so much is left to the parents.

So, I think I'd rather pay (the preschool) to have the child learn these things (alphabet, writing, beginning reading, etc). I'd rather just play with my kids at home and have fun (and trying to get too academic with them never worked well for us at home).

So is it wrong to now want an academic preschool when I search for one? I feel I have totally changed my thoughts!

The thing is...we play and play and 2 hours at preschool learning academics, is that OK? The alternative is mommy becomes the teacher b/c the child can't keep up in elementary school if the basics of reading are not there from day 1 of kindergarten.(And do academic preschools have play-based methods as well? I can't imagine them just sitting at a desk for 2 hours or anything. :)

But I DO want them to learn a bunch of kindergarten skills before kindergarten. Once they start, the pace is fast and furious.

I know there is no right/wrong, I just wish I'd known how much the schools expect b/c I could have done a better job.
What are your thoughts?

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answers from San Francisco on

If you have done play-based and it didn't work for you, then you probably will prefer an academic school. Personally, I am 100% committed to play-based preschools and really don't see the need for kids to have a strong academic background as they enter kindergarten. I also think they can gain a lot more at a play-based school than many people realize.

Right now, I have a first grade son and a daughter in her first year at a play-based preschool. They are both doing great and my son was totally prepared for kindergarten when he finished his two years of preschool. At preschool, they always have one station each day that has games that are more directly related to academic-type learning (bingo with letters, number matching, etc) but still done as a board game and made fun for the children.

Consider buying more educational toys and games to play at home. Zingo is an excellent game and there are dozens of others. Look at Discovery Toys ( and Lakeshore Learning to find some truly wonderful products.

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answers from Norfolk on

They actually learn a lot by playing.
If you're thinking of some sort of preschool where they spend time filling out workbooks - I'd never do that to a kid.
Sheesh - between kindergarten, 12 yrs of school, 4-5 yrs of college (more if they are going for a masters or doctorate) WHY the heck does preschool (3 and 4 yr olds) NEED to get on the academic treadmill so early in life?
It's getting way too crazy.

What's next?
If they don't come out of the womb knowing how to read they'll already be behind somehow?
What happens when you cram all this stuff into your kid early on is that they get to school knowing everything kindergarten is suppose to teach them and guess what?
The class STILL travels at the pace of the slowest student and yours get get bored Bored BORED with the snail's pace.
Let a kid be a kid for a little while longer.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

They learn thru playing. Lets just keep pushing and pushing our kids. Ever wonder why everyone has a label of some sort. Learning happens everyday at home. Counting going up and down the stairs, colors of items,

If you take kids that went to preschool and those that did not go, usually by the time they are 6 or so, you cannot pick out who is who. So I say a play based preschool for a happy child.

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answers from San Francisco on

How to count, sing, rhyme, colors, sorting, puzzles, that's all math/spatial awareness.
Cutting, pasting, play doh, painting, beading/lacing, that's all pre writing (fine motor) skills.
Being read to, looking at books, watching a short video and discussing it, that's pre reading and comprehension skills.
Sharing, taking turns, listening, following directions, social skills.
Academics aren't so hard to teach if a child has all of the above skills mastered.
What you REALLY want to look for is an NAEYC accredited preschool, and most of those are not academic, because experts in ECE know that young children learn best through play. They are still very tactile at that age.
And I honestly don't see K being that much more advanced than when I was a kid. Yes, there tends to be more work time and less play time, but isn't that all the more reason to keep preschool as it was meant to be, social play and skill building?

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answers from Reading on

Two hours of learning at preschool is absolutely okay for all the reasons you listed. The fact that we as parents are shamed into second guessing our beliefs is so frustrating. You listed very good reasons and if your thoughts totally changed, that's fine!

I think you have to go and experience the preschools - the adjectives "play based" and "academic" are pretty meaningless, in my mind. Why can't learning be fun? When did we decide "academic" doesn't mean play? I will say, the play based preschool we visited was appallingly unstructured. As a stay at home mom, I don't simply need a babysitter - I can let my child play unstructured at home and in playgroup. I needed my kids to learn how to be around other kids, learn how to listen to another adult, learn to follow directions, sit still when necessary, and generally be prepared for school. So we chose an "academic" preschool. But "academic" didn't mean sit and do worksheets - it wasn't age inappropriate or boring. They loved their preschool and were very well prepared for kindergarten when the time came. I also worked with them on reading, writing, and math skills at home. I wasn't a drill sergeant - I was a mom helping her kids explore learning in fun ways that sent the message that learning is a lifelong skill that can be done anywhere at any time and can and should be fun. I think you'll get a lot of outraged moms here who think "academic" preschool is a horrible idea. But to me, it made a ton of sense.

ETA: I'm not sure where you (or anyone else) got the idea that "academic" preschool meant sitting at a desk for two hours. Go and observe - it's not like that.

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answers from Honolulu on

... I think that the experience you had with your eldest child, and how he is currently per reading etc, has affected how you feel now, about how much and when your current child should be learning before he has even started school.

Just be careful, of burn-out. For the child per academics.
Any child, able or not with academics, may get burnt out if all they are stressed about it and pressured.

I have 2 kids.
Each one has different abilities. They both went to different Preschools. One was more play oriented not much academics. One was more academic but in age appropriate ways and is was ALSO learning by playing. Not sitting at a desk. Nor for 2 hours. It was playing while, learning. And both my kids, learned at different paces.
Once they hit Kindergarten, my son who did not have much academics, was FINE. My daughter who did have more "academics" was FINE too.
But one is better at math, than the other. And even if my son was not reading in Preschool or Kindergarten, he had an astounding vocabulary that was advanced for his age, despite him not reading much. And at his current age, he is good at reading even HUGE words, and he was never taught it per say.
So, the Preschool a child attends, does not exactly, "make" a child more able or not or "smarter" or not.

Each elementary school will "expect" different things.

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answers from San Francisco on

ONLY if your child is enjoying it. Academic is fine, IF your kid likes it. If not, you are doing harm to his/her future educational experience. Whatever the approach, if it doesn't "light your child's fire," and instead tries to fill a pail and ultimately stress them out, it's not a good approach.

I agree with SH and Julie, and I think that learning through play is ultimately preferable, but since my youngest child liked to do workbooks as a toddler (cute little nerd that he was) vs. playing with toys I can say that some toddlers actually can prefer an academic approach. But play is better for most kids.

**"Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail."**

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answers from Sacramento on

Kids learn through play. In an "academic" preschool they should be teaching through play.

You don't say how old your child is, but kids under 4 shouldn't be expected to be writing letters. They should be able to draw certain kinds of lines though. They should be doing activities that build fine motor skills that will be used for writing later.

There are a million ways that kids can be taught through play, and the ways that they learn will be different once they get into kinder. Exposure to things like letter sounds and letter recognition is great and will help them when they get to kinder. But by no means should they be expected to know how to read prior to kindergarten.

Look for a preschool that incorporates learning into their curriculum in specific ways that prepare them for age appropriate learning and skills, but not one that has your 2 year old looking at flash cards.

Also the social aspect of preschool is so so important. A child that feels comfortable and confident with other children and adults will do much better than a child who has spent time in an academic preschool learning how to read. An anxious child, no matter how bright they are isn't in the head space to learn.

Good luck~

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answers from Chicago on

Everything should be play-based until 7. All the evidence shows this.

Spend 30 minutes a day reading, and they should pick up the whole of preschool by kindergarten.

Also, is terrific. A few mornings a week of that is a better than teacher directed preschools. Everything should be child-centered in the beginning, their own natural curiosity and interest is enough to give them the basics. They are programmed to learn, all you have to do is talk and read to them.

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answers from Houston on

I will not pay for play-based. I can do that myself.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Ah, since I wrote in a previous post that a child should be enrolled in a play-based preschool, I guess I should elaborate.

think a quality preschool experience in one in which the child is totally involved. It is not a spectator sport or a race. On the other hand, it is not free play all day. It has a balance of both the introduction of concepts and the opportunities to apply those concepts in creative ways. I completely agree that many kindergartens today require a grasp of academic material once taught in first grade. So the preschool has to have a curriculum that includes these materials, in a child appropriate environment. It is not necessary to use worksheets or rote repetition to master these skills. These are not especially helpful to master a genuine understanding of pre-reading and pre-math skills. But yes, it is totally appropriate to teach letter and number skills, embedded in daily chart and book time, during cooking and art opportunities, and during carefully chosen music and play roles. And those skills are learned in a way that can be generalized to the next classroom, because the children truly "own" them.

P.S. Please don't think you should have done differently with your son. There is no accurate rear-view window in parenting. You don't know how he would have responded to academic lessons earlier. I hope he is getting the educational services he needs now to succeed.

Edit: After reading through the other answers, I realize that there seems to be two ways to see play-based. Some preschools that only have children play aimlessly are called that by a few respondents. I am familiar with play-based, meaning a preschool with a full curriculum, taught with age-appropriate lessons and materials, including play. So when looking for a preschool, perhaps it's more accurate to say that I think you might look for a balanced preschool, with a rich curriculum and expected outcomes that are well defined, in a classroom with active, involved children, who are painting, playing, singing, dancing, co-reading books with their teachers, cutting, pasting, creating ..... All my best.

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answers from New London on

I used to teach FT. I have worked w/ hundreds of parents over the yrs as I taught parenting...

Yes, play is how kids learn when they r preschoolers. Yet, I have asked some Kindergarten teachers which kids are ready for Kindergarten...the ones from the play-based preschool or the academic one.

The teachers (and parents) w/ the kids from the academic preschool were much more prepared. Of course, there were exceptions.

This is not what I learned in any of my college courses or from the parenting experts I had to train with.

Sadly, Kindergarten is now 1st grade. So, most kids do have to be ready for it.

As a certified teacher and certified parent educator, I don't forsee Kindergarten becoming play-based anytime soon.

The academic preschool near me...The kids play for 30 minutes when they arrive. Then, the 4's are broken into 4 groups. Each group goes in a classroom w/ a teacher for 20 minutes of "academics." After that, the groups join together and have snack at tables...Then, an open-ended art project. After that, the kids play for another 15 minutes until pick-up.

I asked at least 10 parents about this school (Their kids are now in grades 1 - 3). They were so happy their kids learned their letters, a few site words, numbers, etc ...These same parents told me that their kids were better prepared for K versus the kids who went to the play-based preschool.

Yes, the pace is fast...Much more stress on the kids today. That's great if the child can HANDLE it...Not all KINDERGARTENERS are ready to learn at this fast pace though.

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answers from Grand Forks on

Where I am from kindergarten is still kindergarten and pre-school is still pre-school. Pre-school is mostly play, but the kids learn the social skills, listening skills and classroom behaviour skills they will need for kindergarten. They also learn their address and phone number, the alphabet, numbers 1-10, how to print their own names, colours, how to hold a pencil, how to use scissors, how a book works and the days of the week. They learn through play and song. They learn the rest in kindergarten. I'm glad our system lets kids be kids and learn through play.

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answers from Oklahoma City on

It would be nice if kids could play as much as they used to but now there are academic laws that say if a child can't read in kindergarten they don't have to pass them. If they can't read in first grade they will hold them back, not parents choice. If they are having problems reading they'll be in a special program in first grade.

So I would advise that a 4 year old kiddo needs to be in a full time pre-K program through the school system. They need to enroll right after Christmas Break in their home school so they will get on the list first.

I put our older grand child in Head Start 4 year old program and she didn't learn anything. They are actually part of our local school system too. Her entry test into kindergarten showed she was pretty far behind the kids that went to their local elementary school's pre-K program from 8am-2:30 Monday through Friday.

We didn't hesitate to put our grandson in the pre-K program at the local elementary school and he was so much more advanced entering kindergarten than she was. It's amazing.

So I say send her to a real school for Pre-K and don't worry about paying anyone, just put her in school with the kids her age. The school based program for Pre-K will have the best results and she'll start making her friends.

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answers from New York on

Preschool should be for learning. A good school will "teach" your child using a variety of techniques, which will include fun activities and play.

You are correct in saying that Kindergarten is the new 1st grade. Children are expected to start writing and reading in K.

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answers from Omaha on

My kids went to a preschool that offers a little bit of both: play and academic concepts. They only went twice per week at age 3 and 3 times per week at age 4 for 2. 5 hours. They rotated through half hour blocks: art, music, play and cooking or academic concept. They learned such things as recognizing and writing upper and lowercase letters, memorizing and writing their phone number, address, learning names of friends and family members, animals, shapes, numbers, math skills (especially in cooking) gross and fine motor skills, hygiene skills, lots of reading, songs and finger plays and went on a few field trips on the big yellow bus all the while practicing good social skills.
My kids LOVED their school! And when my son started kindergarten he was ready because he had learned the foundational skills needed to continue on in kindergarten. I am constantly amazed about how much they really know. I like to think my kids are just wicked smart in their own right and all the experiences I exposed them to, but I know they really did learn an awful lot from preschool that set them up for success at the big kid school.
As a teacher, I agree it is mostly about play, but finding a school that is about play-based academics is a great way to get a well-rounded start to meet the curriculum challenges of today's kindergarten.



answers from Washington DC on

I went with play based. She learned - through play. She would come home and tell me all about orcas and how whales were mammals that lived in the sea, and talked to each other through song, etc. etc....and have no idea that she just learned by doing songs and dances and crafts. She was absolutely ready for K academically and began reading school books in the first month.

If you want to know what the district wants, then go to their website. They likely have a PDF for you. Or you can get something in the mail.

My DD was in preschool 3.5 hours, 5 days a week. It was great for her. I would not regret the play based aspect at all. I think it is a misnomer that play-based isn't learning. It's learning how THEY learn. They learn math by cooking. They learn colors by mixing paint. They learn letters by playing alphabet games. There should be structure to the play and goals and requirements. The teachers met with us and told us where DD was in her pre-K skills and if there was anything to work on.

The biggest thing DD needed was school. Learn from a teacher. Follow class rules. Get along with classmates. Etc. That was just as important as ABC.

You can still play with your kids at home and teach them. They learn from you all the time - how to count plates for dinner, how to tie their shoes, what their address is, how to measure food for the cat, what the seasons are, etc. them.

If it is truly an uphill struggle is it the school or the kid? There may be more you need to find out from the teacher.



answers from New York on

We have our 3 yo DS enrolled in a non academic daycare 3 days a week for 6 hours a day.

Despite it being non academic, he has learned his colors, numbers, shapes, including trapezoids and rhombii, letters, songs, and concepts such as the phases of the moon, that catepillars pupate, he understands the routine of the school day, how to listen, sit, stand in line, help others, dress, potty, share, take turns, wait.

The school has them doing projects and units like learning to paint like michaelangeo, pointelism, learning to paint like van gogh. They watch things rot, they watch things grow, they melt things, they freeze things, they bury things, they unearth things. they fundraise, they learn safety rules, they talk about elections. They do book reports where they are asked to draw pictures to illustrate- my favorite part of the book was, i thought it funny when, if I were a hungry catepillar I might eat . . . etc.

We picked the school because it is long established, has a reputation for being safe, loving, and caring. We weren't too concerned about academics. It just so happened that this play based curriculum happens to support a lot of learning. Kids are learning all the time everywhere, anyway. Whether we intend to teach them or not.

Take a hard look at what is being offered at your current play based school, and what your kid is learning, and how he likes it, and then decide accordingly.

Best to you and yours,
F. B.

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