By Vital Didonet

Kindergartens and preschools have a distinguishing feature that differentiates them from primary schools: they’re places where children play.

While children in primary school learn through teaching—the transmission of information and knowledge—early childhood education understands that children also learn by playing. Play is the process that nature has created for small human beings to discover the world, relate to it and take ownership of its rules. It is, without a doubt, a child’s main way of accessing, encountering, dialoguing and interacting with the outside world and, in turn, it allows the child to construct his or her own inner world.

A few years ago, early childhood education was viewed merely as preparation for primary school. It was accessible to just a few children and did not form part of compulsory education; therefore, it had no place in the education budget, it wasn’t on the radar of those who design education programs, and researchers weren’t that interested in it either. In those days, when early childhood education was just an afterthought, there was plenty of freedom when creating educational programming. Playfulness, each child’s self-initiative and pace, and learning through play—the purest and most original Froebelian principle—dictated early childhood pedagogy.

Science’s discovery of the importance of the early years of life in the formation of intelligence and the construction of cognitive, social and emotional structures guided governments’ interest toward early childhood education, transforming it into the first stage of basic education. With this change, several education systems and schools swapped early childhood pedagogy for goals and formal teaching methods measured by testing.

Today, there are longitudinal studies that cast doubt on whether beginning formal teaching of math and language earlier on leads to better performance in school. For example, educational reform carried out in Germany in the 1970s shifted the emphasis of most kindergartens from play to the children’s cognitive performance. A group of researchers closely followed the experiences at 50 early childhood education centers. The results showed that at age 10, the children who had played in early childhood were outstanding in several regards: they were more advanced in reading and math and better adapted both socially and emotionally. These children outperformed others in creativity, intelligence, expressive language and other skills. As a direct consequence of this study, early childhood education centers in Germany returned to the pedagogy of play as the core (form and content) of learning.

Just as coachmen put blinders on horses to prevent them from getting distracted and to trot faster, today’s education system puts figurative blinders on students so they don’t get distracted by things that don’t pertain to the immediate goal of learning. In this analogy, the teachers function as the coachmen of the curriculum and the learning guidelines would be the carrot tied to the end of the stick a couple of feet in front of the horse, thus urging it to pull the cart with greater determination and haste. However, there’s no proof that the carrot works.

Vital Didonet is a professor specializing in early childhood education. His work focuses on issues related to early childhood public policy, specifically the defense and promotion of children’s rights and early childhood education.

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