What the new OCR early childhood data do and do not tell us

March 26, 2014

Recently released to great interest is the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Early Childhood Data Snapshot. I want to call additional attention to this document and the survey behind it for two reasons. First, these new data identify serious educational problems that deserve more than one day in the sun. Second, these OCR data have significant limitations that policy makers, the media, and others should understand when using them. Public preschool education is delivered by a complex, interagency, mixed-delivery system that makes it more difficult to measure than K-12. Unless key limitations of the OCR survey are taken into account, users of the data can reach incorrect conclusions. For example, it was widely reported that 40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool. This is untrue: at the very least, every preschooler with a disability is offered a free appropriate education. The OCR survey also undercounts the provision of preschool education nationally, and its accuracy varies by state, which makes cross-state comparisons particularly perilous. Finally, definitions of such key terms as “suspension” are not what most people would assume, which complicates the interpretation of some high-profile findings.

Data from this OCR survey point to problems with access to preschool education and with policies regarding suspensions from preschool programs and retention (grade repetition) in kindergarten.

  • Every child should have access to high-quality preschool education. Yet, nearly half of all 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend any preschool program, public or private, and even at age 4, when attendance is more common, just 64% of 4-year-olds not yet in kindergarten attend preschool, according the 2012 Current Population Survey.
  • The only “zero tolerance” policy that should apply in preschool is that there should be no preschool suspensions. Yet, a substantial number of preschoolers are suspended each year, with boys and African-American children more likely to be suspended than others. States and LEAs should examine their data, practices, and policies closely to prevent this problem.
  • States should look closely at their policies regarding kindergarten grade retention. Does it really make sense to pay for more than 1 in 10, or even 1 in 20, children to attend kindergarten twice? Better access to high-quality preschools, and added services in kindergarten such as tutoring for children who are behind, could be much more cost-effective. States with high kindergarten retention rates should be looking into why they are retaining so many children and what can be done to reduce these rates.

Universal access to high-quality public preschool addresses all of these problems. Better teachers, smaller classes, and more support from coaches and others would reduce suspensions. Such preschools would have more appropriate expectations for behavior, and teachers who can support the development of executive functions that minimize behavior problems. The lower quality of preschools attended by African-American children may partly explain their higher rates of preschool suspension. Finally, good preschool programs have been shown to reduce grade repetition, though bad policies are likely behind many of the high rates of kindergarten retention.

The importance of the problems identified by the OCR data raises another key issue to which most of this article is devoted: to use the data appropriately we must understand the limitations of the data and make sure we interpret them correctly.

Access is Complicated

Let us begin with the finding that “40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool.”  Federal and state laws require that every child with a disability be offered a free, appropriate education from ages three to five. Yet OCR data do not seem to consistently include these children when reporting preschool special education at either the LEA or school level. One reason is that some “school districts” include only older children, e.g., high school districts and vocational school districts. (About 1 percent of high school districts also provide preschool, typically to serve children of teen parents or as a vocational training program.) Limiting the analysis to districts with kindergarten, 70 percent report that they provide preschool, which still seems low. This is partly because some agencies other than LEAs are responsible for preschool special education services. It is also possible that some LEAs mistakenly stated that preschool was not provided. Turning to the number of children reported served, rather than the number of districts serving them, we find a similar problem. School reports undercount the numbers of preschool children receiving services, and the undercount is a bigger problem in some states than others. (A complete copy of the questionnaire can be downloaded here.)

The most obvious explanation for these undercounts is that the OCR survey respondents interpret the questions asking about children served in public school buildings.  At the district level, the OCR survey asks LEAs to first report the number of schools and then to report on their provision of preschool services. This may have led some districts to respond positively only when they served preschool children in public school buildings. At the school level, the OCR survey asks individual schools to report on whether they offer preschool programs and services “at this school” and the enrollment count table specifies “only for schools with these programs/services.”  Whether or not this has any influence on LEA interpretation of the survey, it seems likely that each school reports only preschool offered physically in that school.

Different Data Sources Yield Different Counts

Just how different are the OCR numbers on enrollment from estimates of total enrollment in preschool education offered by states and local education agencies derived from other data sets?  The OCR survey reports 1.4 million enrolled. Data from the Current Population Survey, minus Head Start enrollment, leads to an estimate of about 1.8 million children attending state and local preschool education programs, indicating that the OCR survey is low by about 400,000 children or 22% of the total. In terms of preschool special education services, the OCR data report about 300,000 children, but the Office of Special Education Programs reports 430,000 3- and 4-year-olds receiving special education services under IDEA, and there are additional preschoolers served who are older (while younger children are included in the OCR data). Preschool special education may account for a substantial portion of the undercount, but it seems unlikely to account for the majority of the problem. In sum, the OCR survey undercounts of numbers of children receiving public preschool education from states and LEAs when those served outside public schools are included.

State Approaches Vary

As states differ in how they fund and operate preschool education, the extent to which the OCR data comprehensively capture preschool enrollment varies greatly by state. Looking state by state, it appears that the OCR survey performed fairly well in measuring regular preschool enrollment in most states. However, it grossly undercounted preschool provision in Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. These states make extensive use of private providers for public preschool education. In addition, the OCR figures diverge significantly from the IDEA counts for 10 other states. There are a number of possible reasons for more widespread “undercounting” of preschool special education including: contracting with private providers for special education, responsibility for preschool special education in agencies other than LEAs, and service delivery in homes and other nonpublic school settings. Some preschoolers receive only individualized therapy or other services under IDEA, rather than a publicly provided classroom experience, but neither the OCR nor other data sets allow for the determination of how many children receiving IDEA services are in classrooms funded by public education.

For some states, the data appear to be reasonably accurate when compared to data for the same year from NIEER.[1] Data from the NIEER Yearbook as well as the OCR report are compared below for select states. For states like Georgia and Florida, where many programs are not funded through LEAs, this comparison indicates that the OCR numbers are very incomplete measures of the number of children provided with public preschool education. Relative to total enrollment in state-funded preschool education (which does not include all LEA provision or all preschool special education), Florida is undercounted by about 120,000 and Georgia by more than 30,000. Even in states where funding flows through districts, many children seem likely to have been unreported because they are not served in public schools, which seems to be the case in New York. Also interesting is the case of Wyoming which served 2,207 preschoolers aged 3 and 4 under IDEA, yet the OCR report has Wyoming serving just 13 children under IDEA. While the discrepancies could result primarily from OCR school level respondents counting only children served in public school buildings, this may not be a complete explanation.


NIEER Preschool Yearbook OCR Report
State-Funded Pre-K Enrollment
IDEA Enrollment, 3s and 4s (from Office of Special Education)
Public School Preschool Enrollment
Special Education Enrollment
Florida 175,122 21,007 57,286 16,351
Georgia 82,868 8,561 50,779 8,612
New Jersey 51,540 10,683 48,186 9,839
New York 102,568 45,390 56,540 3,857
Wyoming 0 2,207 624 13

New Jersey allows us to conduct a more fine-grained comparison of OCR data with data from LEAs that include children served by private providers. A simple statewide comparison might suggest reasonably full reporting for New Jersey. New Jersey enrolled about 51,000 children in state-funded pre-K which is not very different from the OCR number. However, about half of the 51,000 in state-funded programs attended private providers (including Head Starts) contracted with districts. New Jersey’s districts vary greatly in the extent to which they serve preschoolers through private providers.  When we look at the numbers district by district, we find that the OCR and district totals closely correspond for districts serving children only or overwhelmingly in public school buildings, but  for districts relying heavily on contracted private providers the OCR numbers correspond closely only to the numbers in public school buildings. The OCR report identifies more than 20,000 preschoolers served in New Jersey public schools who are not funded through the state pre-K programs, which just happens to be close to the number served under contract who are not in the OCR data. This strengthens our conclusion that the OCR data represent only children in public school buildings. This is not to fault the OCR survey in the sense that this is what it is designed to do, but this is not how the OCR data have been widely interpreted, nor is it adequate as a survey of preschool education offered through the public schools (and not just in their own facilities).

Suspension and Retention Data

Given the limitations of the OCR data on numbers of children served, the total numbers should not be used as estimates of all children provided preschool education by the states and LEAs. They much more closely approximate the numbers served in public school buildings. Comparisons across states, LEAs, and schools, should be approached with great caution. It is unclear exactly how this might affect the percentage of children reported as suspended, but it seems unlikely to overturn either the general conclusion that suspensions occur at a disturbing rate or that they are higher for African American children and boys. However, comparisons of suspensions across states or districts might be distorted by limitations of the data.

Another aspect of the survey with the potential for misunderstanding is presented by the definition of “suspensions.”  In the OCR survey the definition includes not just children who have been sent home, but also those temporarily served in other programs offering special services for children with behavior problems. Such placements are not necessarily bad for children or to be avoided. However, the data do not allow for any division between children sent home and children sent to more appropriate placements. Nevertheless, the high rate at which children are temporarily removed from their regular classrooms for behavior problems is cause for concern.

The accuracy of the kindergarten retention data also deserves scrutiny. Earlier this year, NIEER collected state data on grade repetition by grade level from state sources of information, though not all for the 2011-12 year. Across all 27 states for which we obtained data, our figures averaged 8/10 of a percentage point lower. Comparing only those for which we had 2011-12 data, our figures averaged ½ of one percent lower. At least judged relative to the only other source we have, the OCR retention data seem reasonably accurate. That the OCR data are slightly higher might reflect efforts to minimize the appearance of a problem.  There are some large discrepancies for a few states. Arkansas had 12 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 6 percent in the state data we obtained; Michigan had 7 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 12 percent in the state data we obtained. For such states, it may be useful to review the data on a district-by-district or school-by-school basis to identify reasons for the discrepancies. Even with kindergarten retention there can be differences due to interpretation. For example, should children who enter a transitional kindergarten program after kindergarten be considered retained?  What about children who enter kindergarten after a year of transitional K?  Any problems with the data would not negate the conclusion that some states have very high rates compared to others and that this deserves consideration by policy makers.

Overall, OCR has provided a valuable service by collecting these early childhood data. Without the OCR data, there would be no basis for raising the issue of preschool suspensions and no way to track progress on this issue in the future. Similarly, without the OCR data there would be no basis for comprehensive state-by-state comparisons on grade retention at kindergarten. Nevertheless, great care must to be taken to recognize the limitations of the OCR data, and the federal government should do more to reduce those limitations. OCR is already working to improve the next survey. Ultimately, they may have to go beyond a school-based survey, because much of public education for preschool children takes place outside of public school buildings even when it is under the auspices of the state education agency (SEA). And, in some states public preschool education is not entirely under the SEA. Possibly, states could supplement LEA data by providing the same basic information for preschoolers they serve outside public school buildings. In addition, procedures might be added to verify that respondents properly understand all questions, especially for states where the responses seem at odds with data from other sources. Some data might be collected in more detail: preschoolers suspended at home with no services separated from those in alternative placements; preschool education children in classrooms separated from those served elsewhere; and, transitional K separated from repetition in regular K.  If you have additional suggestions, particularly based on knowledge of your state’s preschool services systems, OCR would undoubtedly welcome them.

– Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


[1] Though NIEER data report on enrollment in state-funded pre-K enrollments, they do not include LEA preschool services that are not part of state-funded pre-K or IDEA; NIEER data will not capture the full undercount.

The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor

Play and Mathematics: An Equation that Works

March 14, 2014

In honor of “Pi Day,” a day to celebrate math concepts, named for the mathematical symbol pi (3.14 . . .), NIEER presents a guest blog post on the importance of play-based learning in mathematics from Deborah Stipek, Stanford University Professor. For a full review of our forum on play-based learning, please click here.

Often, the resistance to teaching by advocates of play is based on an image of “instruction” as drill-and-kill activities which, in addition to being boring, do not help children develop deep understanding of discipline-based knowledge and skills (although they may produce better performance on traditional tests of a limited set of skills). Because this image comes to many preschool teachers’ minds when you mention teaching, they resist. But basic skill drills are not the only alternative to play. Teachers who resist instruction might change their minds if they had an image of the teaching strategies that most experts advocate.

A Pi Day Pie, from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker :http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/8561590798/

A Pi Day Pie, from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker :http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/8561590798/

Consider math, for example. The field of early math teaching has evolved to provide many examples of research-based instruction that should please people who advocate play for young children. Most experts now endorse purposeful instruction that supports the development of deep mathematical understandings and that children enjoy—what I call “playful learning.”

But effective (and playful) math, as well as effective literacy teaching, requires considerable skill – more than is needed to hand out ditto sheets. Teachers need to understand math themselves, and they need to know how to assess children’s understandings in different domains of math, and determine appropriate activities and scaffolding to bring them to the next level. The same is true for literacy. Even the most structured curriculum depends on teachers’ judgment and skill for effective implementation. And while teachers engage with children in math or literacy learning, they need to provide an emotionally secure social context and support the development of self-regulation and social skills.

Most preschool teachers in the US do not get an opportunity to develop these skills. Even teachers who have bachelor’s degrees—the current gold standard—do not necessarily have any relevant training in pedagogy. The focus in preparing preschool teachers has traditionally been on child development, which to be sure is relevant, but does not prepare a new teacher to help children develop an understanding of the many facets of early mathematics or develop early literacy skills. Until we invest in pedagogical training that prepares preschool teachers to provide children with playful, but also purposeful and effective, learning opportunities, the debate about play will continue.

Reflections on Play: A Resource Guide

March 7, 2014

NIEER is concluding a two-week blog forum on the importance of play in early childhood education. As we stated in our kick-off postboy playing with blocks 2

“The early childhood field has a history of conflict over means and goals that periodically erupts into public debates about the role of play versus academics and construction versus instruction. Concerns about whether preschool and kindergarten have become too stressful and regimented are met head on with concerns that they are academically weak and fail to cognitively challenge children. These conflicts have been intensified by increased demands for assessment and Common Core State Standards driving curriculum in the early grades.” 

In the last two weeks, we’ve considered play from a number of different perspectives from experts in the field, looking both at what the research says about play’s importance in the classroom, and at how play-based learning can be used on the ground. These posts focus on key issues in the field and serve as valuable resources as parents, teachers, and policymakers strive to ensure play has its place in pre-K:

What does play looking like in an early childhood setting? How can meaningful learning be fostered without forcing out room for creativity, imagination, and fun?

In addition to the posts we’ve featured, NIEER has compiled a list of resources–a recommended reading list–to help keep the conversation going:

Are there others you think provide a great perspective on the importance of play? Please share links and recommendations in the comments!

Thanks for joining us in this important discussion.


Teacher-led? Child-guided? Find the Balance in Preschool Classrooms

March 7, 2014

By Kimberly Brenneman, NIEER Assistant Research Professor

“Stick to the rules that I say.”  It’s a refrain from my childhood, uttered by my next-door neighbor to make clear that while we were playing at her house, she got to choose what we did and how we did it and to change her mind any time she pleased. I’m sometimes reminded of these backyard days when I read the debates on play in early childhood classrooms.  It’s almost as if some believe that a teacher who plans and leads learning experiences is telling children to “stick to the rules that she says.”

In a recent study[i], colleagues and I explored the possibility that, rather than limiting children’s free play science interactions, a planned, whole group lesson might actually enhance them.  We introduced kids to the function of a balance scale during morning meeting.  The lesson was interactive, and kids got to hold items to feel which was heavier, then put them on the scale to find out that the side with the heavier item always tipped down.  Then we tested a few pairs of items that were hard to distinguish by felt weight.  It became clear that the function of the balance scale was to help us know which of two things was heavier when our sense of felt weight could not.  After the lesson, we adults placed the scale back in the science area with no comment and children were let loose to interact with centers as they wished.  Meanwhile, we observed the science area and counted the number of minutes that children were present there.  We had done similar counts prior to the balance scale intervention and found few children went to the science area, and no child ever touched the balance scale.  After the intervention, many children went to the science area to explore the balance scale and, while doing so, found lots of other interesting objects and possibilities for play.  Their knowledge of the function of the scale also increased, compared to their earlier knowledge and to that of children who hadn’t participated in the balance scale intervention.

A balance scale in action in a classroom. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brenneman.

A balance scale in action in a classroom. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brenneman.

We don’t know how much of what kids learned about the scale originated in the large group experience, and how much from interacting with the scale during choice time.  What we do know is, that without an adult intervention to introduce kids to this tool, it is unlikely any of them would’ve learned about it on their own.  None of them ever went near it. Using an engaging and interactive planned lesson to show and explain how a tool or material is used need not mean that play and self-guided exploration have been stifled.  Instead these teaching strategies could mark the beginning of higher quality play and increased learning, guided by children, but inspired by their teacher.

[i] Nayfeld, I., Brenneman, K., & Gelman, R.  (2011).  Science in the classroom: Finding a balance between autonomous exploration and teacher-led instruction in preschool settings. Early Education & Development, 22(6), 970-988.

Playful learning: Where a rich curriculum meets a playful pedagogy

March 6, 2014

NIEER is hosting a blog forum on play-based learning in early childhood education, including posts from national experts in the field. Learn more about the forum here. Some worry that the push for quality education even partially driven by a desire to improve achievement may deprive children of important childhood experiences. Others worry that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds, particularly for children at high risk of academic failure. 

By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University & Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, University of Delaware 

The Capulets and Montagues of early childhood have long battled over their vision for a perfect preschool education.  Should young children be immersed in a core curriculum replete with numbers and letters or in a playful context that stimulates creative discovery?  The ‘preschool war’ leaves educators torn and embattled politicians in deadlock.  Playful learning offers one way to reframe the debate by nesting a rich core curriculum within a playful pedagogy.

The case for a strong core curriculum in preschool is compelling.  Toddlers’ oral language skills predict later language ability at school entry as well as their budding literacy skills.[i]  Learning to count, to think spatially, and to master concepts in preschool relates to later mathematical understanding and STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) development.[ii]  And early social competencies in emotion regulation predict later academic achievement.[iii]  Duncan et al. (2007) conducted meta-analyses across thousands of children and concluded that mathematics, emergent literacy scores, and attentional skills were the best predictors of later academic success. These results held for all children regardless of gender or socio-economic status.[iv] These findings are why Yoshikawa et al., (2013) reported that “interactions explicitly aimed at supporting learning, that foster both higher-order thinking skills in general and learning of content in such specific areas as early math and language” (p. 6) are a key part of what counts as high quality in preschool.[v]

The case for an academic curriculum is also bolstered by recent research challenging the value of play as a conduit for learning. Though Ed Zigler quipped that “play is under siege” in 2004, it came under a full frontal attack in 2012 when Lillard et.[vi] al, reviewed the evidence linking play and learning, declaring the evidence supporting causal relations between play and learning weak at best.  This claim sounded a premature death knoll for the Capulets who support free play as the core of a preschool education and adds fuel to the trend of replacing preschooler’s play with more time on academic pursuits.[vii]

Though it is clear that children benefit from a rich curricular approach to preschool education, that does not imply that kindergarten classrooms should become the new first grade. Mountains of evidence suggest that children learn better in active, child-centered, developmentally appropriate environments that adopt a playful pedagogy[viii] as in Montessori or Reggio[ix].  Marcon,[x] for example, compared three preschool models on a variety of academic, behavioral, and social measures. Children in child-initiated learning preschool environments were compared in sixth grade to children who experienced didactic, direct instruction or mixed methods (didactic instruction and play-learning). The children in the child-initiated classrooms showed superior social behaviors, fewer conduct disorders, enhanced academic performance and retention over didactic learners.[xi]

A number of well-conducted studies add ancillary evidence: Play has a central role as a medium for promoting school readiness in a whole, active child.[xii]  Links between play and learning are reported in the areas of language and literacy;[xiii] mathematics,[xiv] causality,[xv] and creativity.[xvi]

In her review of the Abecedarian program,[xvii] the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project,[xviii] and the Chicago Child-Parent Center Project,[xix] Galinsky noted that successful programs viewed children as active experiential learners using a pedagogical approach aligned with playful learning.[xx]  Even Lillard et al.[xxi] closed the now classic article suggesting that, “The hands-on, child-driven educational methods sometimes referred to as ‘playful learning’ (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009) are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development”.  The evidence thus cries for some way to unite the warring factions in a more cohesive and inclusive approach to preschool education. Playful learning offers one such approach.

Playful learning is a whole-child approach to education that includes both free play and guided play.  While free play characterizes the pedagogy held by the Capulets, guided play offers a new twist. It refers to play in a structured environment around a general curricular goal that is designed to stimulate children’s natural curiosity, exploration, and play with learning-oriented materials.[xxii]  In guided play, learning remains child-directed. This is a key point.  Children learn targeted information through exploration of a well-designed and structured environment (e.g. Montessori[xxiii]) and through the support of adults who ask open-ended questions to gently guide the child’s exploration.  Two recent studies from our laboratory illuminate the power of a playful learning approach over a more directed approach to learning.

Fisher et al.[xxiv] compares direct instruction, free play, and guided play in a task in which 4- and 5-year old children’s learn the properties of geometric shapes. Children either explored triangles and hexagons on their own (free play), took the lead in exploring the shapes while an adult chimed in with supporting questions (guided play), or heard about the criterial properties of the shapes from the experimenter (direct instruction, “A triangle has three sides and three angles”).  Children learned to identify typical shapes in both the direct instruction and guided play condition. However, only the children in the guided play condition identified atypical shapes as instances of the category. Guided play allows children to become engaged; didactic instruction helps them memorize but not transfer what they have learned. Guided play helps constrain what children should be focusing on; free play leaves the field too open and does not help children focus on the target outcomes.  Alfieri et al.[xxv] supports these claims in a meta-analysis of children’s learning under different pedagogies. Discovery learning – analogous to free play – is not as effective as enhanced discovery learning where children are scaffolded.
kids playing with clay

Similar results are emerging in an ongoing random control study of vocabulary learning in Head Start schools in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.  After hearing a book with targeted vocabulary, children either play with figurines designed to enhance learning (free play), rehearse the vocabulary through fun and engaging flashcards (direct instruction) or participate in a play session with the figurines in which adults support the child-initiated play with open-ended questions.  Preliminary results suggest that children do better in the guided play condition than in either the free play or the directed instruction conditions.[xxvi]

Finally, outcomes from the classic HighScope project[xxvii] show the merits of a playful learning perspective where curricular goals are achieved through a playful learning pedagogical approach.  By age 23, children who went to play-based, but curricular-rich preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances and three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. 

Tests of playful learning are admittedly in their infancy (or maybe their toddlerhood), and as Lillard et al., (2013) rightly argue, much more research needs to be done to secure the relationship between aspects of play and domains of learning.[xxviii] Yet, the findings from our work and others suggest a rapprochement between the Capulets and the Montagues in the preschool debates. It is possible to have a curriculum rich in learning goals that is delivered in a playful pedagogy.  Perhaps Kagan and Lowenstein[xxix] put it best when they ask whether “school readiness and children’s play” are a “contemporary oxymoron or a compatible option?” Answering their own question, they write,

The literature is clear: Diverse strategies that combine play and more structured efforts are effective accelerators of children’s readiness for school and long-term development. Having made this assertion, let it be clear that play rather than being eliminated, must be elevated to a central position in this inquiry.

Ten years later, this remains the soundest read of the literature.


[i]  NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Pathways to reading: The role of oral language in the transition to reading. Developmental Psychology, 41, 428-442.

Scarborough, H.S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 97-110).  New York: Guilford.

Storch, S. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2001). The role of family and home in the literacy development of children from low-income backgrounds. In P. R. Britto & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), The role of family literacy environments in promoting young children’s emerging literacy skills (pp. 53–71). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Early Literacy Panel (2009). Developing early literacy:  Report of the national early literacy panel.. Jessup, Maryland, National Institute for Literacy.

Dickinson, D., Golinkoff, R. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2010). Speaking Out for Language Why Language Is Central to Reading Development. Educational Researcher39, 305-310.

[ii] Verdine, B., Golinkoff, R., Hirsh-Pasek, K, Newcombe, N., Filipowicz, A. & Chang, A. (in press). Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child Development.

Baroody, A. & Dowker, A. (2003). The development of arithmetic concepts and skills: Constructing adaptive expertise. New York: Routledge.

[iii] Raver, C. C. (2002).  Emotions matter:  Making the case for the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness.  SRCD Social Policy Report, XVI, 3-18.

Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318, 1387-1388.

Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4- to 12-years-old. Science, 333, 959-964. doi:10.1126/science.1204529

[iv] Duncan, G., Claessens, A., Huston, A., Pagani, L., Engel, M., Sexton, H., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.

[v] Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Burchinal, M., Espinosa, L., Gormley, W., Ludwig, J., Magnuson, K, Phillips, D., Zaslow, M. (2013). Investing in our future:  The evidence base on preschool education. Society for Research in Child Development and Foundation for Child Development.

[vi] Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2012). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 1-34.

[vii]  Bassock, D., & Rorem, A. (2013). Is kindergarten the new first grade? The changing nature of kindergarten in the age of accountability. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Seattle, WA, April 2013.

[viii] Stipek, D., Feiler, R., Byler, P., Ryan, R., Millburn, S., & Salmon, J. M. (1998). Good beginnings: What difference does the program make in preparing young children for school? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19, 41-66.

Singer, D. G., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.). (2006).  Play=Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

[ix]  Lillard, A. (2013) Playful learning and Montessori education. American Journal of Play, 5,2, 157-186.

[x] Marcon, R. (1993). Socioemotional versus academic emphasis: Impact on kindergartners’ development and achievement. Early Child Development and Care, 96, 81-91.

Marcon, R. (1999). Differential impact of preschool models on development and early learning of inner-city children: A three cohort study. Developmental Psychology, 35, 358-375.

Marcon, R. (2002). Moving up the grades: Relationships between preschool model and later school success. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4, 517–530.

[xi] Burts, D.C., Hart, C.H., Charlesworth, R., & DeWolf, M. (1993). Developmental appropriateness of kindergarten programs and academic outcomes in first grade. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 8, 23-31.

Lillard, A., & Else-Quest, N. (2006). Evaluating Montessori education. Science, 313, 1893-1894.

[xii] Reynolds,(2000) Success in early intervention: The Chicago Child –Parent Centers. Lincoln, NE. University of Nebraska Press. Roskos, K. A., & Christie, J. F. (2002). ‘Knowing in the Doing’: Observing Literacy Learning in Play. Young Children57, 46-89.

Roskos, K. & Christie, J. (2004) Examining the play-literacy interface: A critical review and future directions. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy1, 59-89.

Zigler, E., Singer, D., & Bishop-Josef, S. (Eds.) (2004). Children’s play: The roots of reading. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.

Singer et al., 2006

[xiii] Weisberg, D., Zosh, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M. (2013). Talking it up” Play, language development and the role of adult support. American Journal of Play.  6, 1, 39-54.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013a). Embracing complexity: Rethinking the relation between play and learning: Comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 35-39.

Nicolopoulou, A., & Ilgaz, H. (2013). What do we know about pretend play and narrative development? A response to Lillard, Lerner, Hopkins, Dore, Smith and Palmquist on “The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. American Journal of Play, 6, 55-82.

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[xvi] Russ, S. & Wallace, C. (2013) Pretend play and the creative process. American Journal of Play, 6,1, 136-149.

[xvii] Campbell, F. A., Ramey, C. T., Pungello, E., Sparling, J., & Miller-Johnson, S. (2002). Early childhood education: Young adult outcomes from the Abecedarian Project. Applied Developmental Science6, 42-57.

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[xix] Reynolds, 2000

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[xxi] Lillard et al. 2013

[xxii]  Fein, G., & Rivkin, M. National Association for the Education of Young Children (1986). The young child at play.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., Berk, L., & Singer, D. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Resnick, L. B.  (1999, June 16). Making America smarter.  Education Week, pp. 38­40.

Schweinhart, 2004

[xxiii] , see Lillard, 2014)

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Weisberg et al, 2013.

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[xxvi] Dickinson, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Nicolopoulou, A., & Collins, M. (2013, April). The Read-Play-Learn intervention and research design. In D. D. Dickinson (Chair of symposium), Effects of varied types of adult-supported play on preschool children’s receptive vocabulary learning. Society for Research on Child Development, Seattle, WA.

[xxvii] Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). Lasting differences: The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study through age 23. Ypsilanti, MI:      High/Scope Press.

Schweinhart, L. L., Weikart, D. P., & Larner, M. B. (1986). Consequences of three preschool curriculum models through age 15. Early Childhood Research Quarterly1, 15-45.

[xxviii] Golinkoff, R., Hirsh-Pasek, K, Russ, & Lillard (2013). Probing play: What does the research show. Guest Editors, American Journal of Play, 6,1.

Russ & Lillard, 2013

[xxix] Kagan, S. L., & Lowenstein, A. E.  (2004).  School readiness and children’s play:  Contemporary oxymoron or compatible option?  In E. F. Zigler, D. G., Singer, & S. J. Bishop-Josef (Eds.), Children’s play:  The roots of reading (pp. 59-76).  Washington, DC:  Zero to Three Press.

Reflections on Play: Engaging Children, Building Skills

March 5, 2014

NIEER is hosting a blog forum on play-based learning in early childhood education, including posts from national experts in the field. Learn more about the forum here. Some worry that the push for quality education even partially driven by a desire to improve achievement may deprive children of important childhood experiences. Others worry that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds, particularly for children at high risk of academic failure. 

By Melissa Dahlin, CEELO Research Associate

Learning through play is an effective (and fun!) tool to help children reach positive outcomes. I believe this not only because of the evidence from research, but also from having used it in my own preschool classroom.  However, it was my own recent experience at a training session on using yoga with young children that convinced me beyond a doubt that play is effective.

The training could have included a lecture, some demonstrations, and some handouts.  I would have listened, taken notes, and then gone home and told myself I’d review the material another day.  And then a month later I’d come across it again while cleaning and remind myself to review it later. And repeat.

Photo used under Creative Commons Attribution via Flickr user sunchild123. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sunchild123/10247975856/

Photo used under Creative Commons Attribution via Flickr user sunchild123. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sunchild123/10247975856/

Fortunately, this was a different type of training. The trainer’s focus was on children learning yoga through play-based activities, and we were to do the activities ourselves as if we were the kids and (here was the kicker) – no note-taking.  This produced a minor panic moment – how in the world would I remember any of it and be able use it afterwards?  I decided to make the training a test of my own belief that learning through play works.

The trainer was intentional – she had specific goals; linked them to our interests and backgrounds; and provided the opportunities and asked the questions to guide us in our learning. The activities were supplemented with both individual discussion with her and group discussion and reflection.  My first impression was that it was really fun, but I fretted I wouldn’t have more than an impression of the activities after leaving.

The day after the training, I decided it was time to see what I remembered.  Within moments, I had two pages of a notebook filled up with very rich, actionable information.  How was that possible? I realized that I was able to remember in vivid detail because I had been so engaged while doing it.  Rather than thinking about an activity in the abstract, I recalled the thoughts, feelings, and reflections I had experienced during the activities and discussions.  By using intentional play as a medium, the activities had become meaningful and tangible.

A common theme running through the training was mindfulness: using play to teach children awareness about their bodies, including their brain – skills that included self-regulation, focus, and persistence.  Though I was learning the material to use with children, I found that I, too, learned skills that were transferable and helpful in my professional and personal life.  The experience further reinforced my belief that play is not only an engaging way for children to learn content in the now, but also a way to build the skills to prepare students to master future learning, both academically and in life.

Tell us in the comments below about your own experiences teaching—or learning—through play.

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