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Early Childhood Experts: Play Should Top Preschool Agenda

Educators can debate what defines a high-quality prekindergarten program, but a Canadian developmental psychologist and best-selling author says that these programs won't do any good unless they focus solely on play.

That's the interesting idea that Gordon Neufeld proposed in a news story published this week in The Montreal Gazette.

Neufeld, who is the author of the 2006 book, Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, believes that play—not achieving academic results—should be at the center of early childhood education. And he asserts that young kids need to develop strong relationships with their parents, who must act as buffers between them and society and schools.

According to the news story, Neufeld says that children between the ages of 4 and 6 aren't ready to learn by working because their brains aren't quite ready for the task. The brain "only gets wired at between 5 and 7 years of age," Neufeld says in the news report.

Play, on the other hand, helps children build problem-solving networks, he says. But that's only if the play is expressive and doesn't have any consequences for making mistakes, or expected outcomes.

Neufeld says kids are pushed into performing too often. "You can get incredible things out of them if you detach them from marks and rewards," he told the newspaper.

And the difference between kids who become performers and those who are engaged in learning? The latter had parents who protected them from the demands of school and society, he says.

Neufeld's ideas were reinforced by another news story that appeared Monday on the website of The Telegraph, out of Great Britain.

In that story, child-care experts are warning that controversial education reforms in England are robbing preschoolers of the ability to play, and that their development is being hindered by a focus on assessments and meeting targets.

The experts' ideas dovetail with a similar debate taking shape in the U.S. as K-12 schools move to adopt the more academically challenging standards in the common core, as reported by Education Week writer Jaclyn Zubrzycki.

In Great Britain, the experts, including British psychologist Penelope Leach, are sounding alarm bells that a compulsory curriculum for preschools and nurseries focuses too much on reading, writing and math.

"Concerns have also been raised over compulsory progress checks that all children will be subjected to before their 3rd birthday to find out whether they can use basic words, respond to familiar sounds, communicate their needs and play with friends," according to the story.

Education officials counter by saying that play should be a central part of preschoolers' learning, but that kids also need to be ready to learn when they start school.

That's true. But, according to these experts, providing ample playtime is the way to get there.

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