TYC: What advice would you have teachers give to parents about these things?
Dr. Gopnik: I hear more and more from teachers that parents are in a state of panic over academic preparedness. It’s hard for both parents and teachers to resist this pressure, which is coming from everywhere. What teachers can say to parents, though, is: “Play is not just some touchy-feely activity. And it’s not just that you want to leave children alone and not rush them. There’s hard evidence that children learn more things through play than they would in some academic setting.”
Children are eventually going to learn to recognize letters. But learning how people work and what’s in others’ minds is a much deeper and more profound learning. Ironically, parents who think they are helping their children by exposing them to flash cards with letters on them are doing less to help their children than parents who expose their children to pretend play, read to them, and talk with them.
TYC: You write that children under 5 do not focus on goals the way adults do; they have trouble focusing on one thing and shutting out everything else. Yet, we know that teachers who are held accountable for children mastering curriculum goals and state standards have to be goal-oriented. How can teachers reconcile these differences?
Dr. Gopnik: I think this is an extremely difficult challenge. If you’re looking at standards, think of them in context. Do children have opportunities to explore and play? Are adults talking with them? And, when discussing preschoolers, it is important to remember that in any group there is tremendous variability in development.
TYC: Do you have any specific guidance for teachers on setting up their programs to promote the kind of play and learning you’ve been talking about?
Dr. Gopnik: One area that I think has been overlooked is outdoor play. It needs to do more than just offer children opportunities for physical exercise. Children also need opportunities to explore. They need places to investigate. They need stairs to climb. And they need trees to hide behind. Children need to have a sense that they are discovering something new going on around them.
TYC: Do you have any final messages for preschool teachers?
Dr. Gopnik: Preschool is part of a great evolutionary story. The preschool years may be the most important time of learning we ever have. The preschool years, from an evolutionary point of view, are an extended period of immaturity in the human lifespan. But it is during this period of immaturity that exploration and play take place. Ultimately, exploration and play during preschool turns us into adults who are flexible and sophisticated thinkers. If you look across the animal kingdom, you’ll find that the more flexible the adult is, the longer that animal has had a chance to be immature.
I think that even the term preschooler is a bit misleading. It implies that our job is to get children ready for school and that school is where the important things happen. But pre
school isn’t just about readiness. It’s an important entity in its own right. Indeed, what preschool teachers do is arguably more important than what occurs in the elementary school. And I think we have lots and lots of evidence of that now. Also a 20 min TED talk she did called "What Do Babies Think": https://www.ted.com/talks/alison_gopnik_what_do_babies_think#t-32092