The need for more playful preschools

Nicholas Burnett

Never has there been so much hope that the world’s children could benefit from preschool. But never has there been such a risk that it could be the wrong type of preschool.

That is one of three important lessons that emerged from a recent workshop that I attended in Reggio Emilia in Italy, organized by the LEGO Foundation and bringing together half a dozen social entrepreneurs from around the world.

Why the hope? The signs are everywhere. Global targets have been set by the Sustainable Development Goals and The Education Commission, both including universal preschool by 2030. International agencies are working on preschool guidelines (UNICEF) and building networks to focus on implementation and scale up of early childhood programs (UNICEF, The World Bank and various foundations in the Early Childhood Development Action Network). At country level, preschool enrollments have never been higher, standing at 44 percent of all children in 2014, the latest year for which there are data, according to the Global Education Monitoring Report. The private sector, for profit and non-profit, accounts for 44 percent of these enrollments. In urban India, some 80 percent of low income households send their children (ages 3 to 6) to preschool, 905 of these private. The LEGO Foundation, working with Ashoka, has supported several social entrepreneurs’ programs to reimagine early learning around the world. R4D has launched work programs on the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative (jointly with ISSA) and on financing Early Childhood Development.

Amidst so much hope, what could possibly go wrong? The wrong programs could come to predominate as a tension builds between what parents demand, what governments might choose to mandate, and what we increasingly know constitutes quality preschool. Parents want preschool for their children so that they will succeed later in school—so their measures of the worth of such programs include such things as whether there is homework and testing, whether instruction is in English or French or another metropolitan language and whether children are disciplined. Moreover, governments increasingly alert to the learning crisis at the primary level—in which far too few children can master basic literacy and numeracy—may tend to respond to this parental demand by essentially offering the primary curriculum at an earlier age. Private schools may well do the same.

Yet we have increasing evidence that the most important aspects of preschool in terms of child development are playful learning, mastering language and self-regulation. Reggio Emilia is famous for pioneering in this area, though certainly not alone. In Reggio, we had the chance to learn about the philosophy and practice from the legendary Carla Rinaldi and to play at learning like a preschooler one afternoon, in the programs’ famous ateliers with their inspiring atelieristas.

We are at a real crossroads and it is not yet clear that the playful learning model will predominate, as it should.

Many things can be done to help it succeed but two are particularly important, and were discussed at some length at the Reggio workshop, the other two lessons I took away.

First, we need to scale up preschool programs that work. Sometimes this means expand them. But certainly not always. Scaling the impact may or may not involve scaling the organization, as Ashoka has been discussing with the Lego grantees. In some cases, such as Hippocampus, a private company delivering early childhood services in rural India, expansion is the way forward. In others, such as aeioTU in Colombia, the strategy of the social entrepreneur, now that success has been demonstrated, is to get others to adopt their approach.

Second, we need to have an operational definition of what constitutes quality preschool. In Reggio, there was consensus that the most important thing of all is to ensure that preschool teachers are trained in playful teaching and learning. R4D’s Early Learning Toolkit can help with this. Both the LEGO Foundation and UNICEF are developing definitions of quality preschool, focusing on such things as curriculum, standards and approach; physical space and materials; workforce; parent and community engagement; business model and scale; resource planning and utilization; quality regulation, monitoring and assurance; and the broader policy environment. We spent a morning filling out content under some of these headings and made quite some progress. Much more needs to be done, however, to identify what is crucial (beyond teachers trained in play) and what is simply desirable.

These practical things can only help, however. Even more important is getting the demand right, making sure that parents and governments learn what is important in preschool is playful learning, not the acquisition of primary school skills at a younger age. We need to shout this message loud and clear, or there is a real danger of preschool just becoming primary school for younger children with serious adverse effects on their development.

Nicholas Burnett is a senior fellow at Results for Development (R4D) where he previously served as managing director for global education. He now focuses especially on pragmatic and innovative approaches to important but neglected topics in education, including early childhood development, out-of-school children, adult illiteracy, innovative finance, non-state education, and the provision of global public goods. 

Photo Credits: aeioTU

This post originally appeared on R4D's Insights Blog

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