Online Preschool Misses the Point
Nationally, we are facing a preschool crisis. Only a third of four-year-olds(and just 5 percent of three-year-olds) attend state-funded preschool, despite evidence that high quality, center-based care yields lasting positive effects including lower rates of grade repetition, and higher levels of educational attainment.
In an attempt to increase access—while reducing costs—some state legislators are turning to online providers. Earlier this month, the House Education Committee of the North Carolina legislature backed a bill that would support school districts participating in the Waterford Upstart program. The virtual program would offer spots to at-risk students who don’t have seats in physical preschools. In Florida, state legislators are considering a computer adaptive Pre-K program which would reimburse private providers for the cost of offering the individualized online curriculum.
As a former PreK teacher, the possibility of preschool children sitting idly in front of screens scares me. Others share this concern. New guidelines (PDF) from the World Health Organization suggest no more than 1 hour of screen time for children ages 2 to 4, and none whatsoever for those younger. It recommends replacing screen time with physical play as a way to cultivate lifelong habits that improve their mental and physical health.
However, what worries me most is what the students are missing by not attending preschool in person. The pre-academic literacy and numeracy skills taught by online providers only account for a fraction of what a child should learn at those ages. Preschool nurtures a child’s physical development, executive functioning and social-emotional skills. Web-based programs cannot provide an all-encompassing social experience that develops the whole child.
So, what is missing from online preschool?
Children in online preschool don’t have classmates that they can learn from. That interaction is critical to development, as children observe and emulate other children, and apply their observations to understand norms for appropriate behavior.
During my days teaching in a Montessori primary classroom, I would start the school year by organizing daily small groups for the youngest children (two and a half to three-year-olds.) In these sessions, I led activities focused on language development, movement and social skills. By November, the five-year-olds would be running these groups. By the spring, the three-year-olds organized and ran the groups with poise.
What always blew my mind was how much more responsive the children were to each other than to an adult. The three-year-old group leader would check an interruptive child with a stern glance. She could re-engage a fidgety group with a movement activity. We should never underestimate the complexity of the skills children can gain from peer interaction: collaboration, leadership, negotiation and empathy should be acquired in preschool, not B-school.
While screens are convenient,an environment that is rich in opportunities for fine motor learning requires lots of materials. Beading, painting, pouring, polishing, collage, weaving, cutting, clay, lacing, buttoning and zipping—all of these activities allow young children to develop hand muscles and pincer grip that they need to manipulate a pencil.
Preschoolers are also developing an awareness of their body and how to move and control it. At ages three to four, children are expected to hop, stand on one foot, climb, throw a ball, and ride a tricycle. Activities such as climbing, walking on a line, dancing and running give children an opportunity for whole-body movement. Preschool provides deliberate opportunities for muscle development.
The young child needs physical experiences (not virtual ones) to make abstract ideas concrete. No explanation of a sphere can equate to holding and rolling one. The best way for a 3-year-old to see if an object floats is by dropping it in water. Interactive online games can teach specific skills such as counting or letter sounds but they deprive the child of the opportunity for discovery. These serendipitous moments make preschool (and all learning) joyous.
Development of Executive Functioning
Children’s academic success in kindergarten and beyond greatly depends on their ability to focus, follow the rules and instructions, and control emotions. Online preschools lack the group classroom setting that is needed to build these socially constructed skills.
The physical preschool classroom is full of opportunities for development of executive function. Children practice working memory when following directions in simple games. They practice self-control when they prepare a snack to share, and resist the urge to eat it right away. Programs that focus only on academics neglect the executive functioning skills that are predictors of future academic success.
Online solutions fail to acknowledge the economic role of organized childcare. Universal preschool can boost mother’s workforce participation, while lack of affordable childcare can force many women to leave their jobs. In other words, if mom is at home supervising online preschool, she can’t go to work.
Preschool Shouldn’t Be a Privilege
While I applaud the sentiment behind making preschool more accessible, online isn’t the way to go. Its supporters may ask: Isn’t something better than nothing? I would argue that this is the wrong question when 90 percent of the brain develops before age five.
Advocates of online preschool say it can provide access to children in poor and rural communities that don’t provide such educational opportunities. But I believe it is only going to widen the equity gap in early learning. Many of the children who need real preschool the most in order to level the academic playing field are the ones most likely to be handed a second-rate substitute. All preschoolers, not just the fortunate ones, deserve the freedom to move and explore, collaborate with classmates and experience the joy of learning by discovery.