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Ready or Not?

To Prepare Children for Kindergarten, Experts Now Seek to Balance Play and Discovery With the Rigors of Academic Instruction


BERKELEY — "School readiness" is on the minds of more and more educators and parents these days. But the debate rages over how best to get preschoolers primed for the increasingly rigorous demands of kindergarten.

Should they learn the old-fashioned way--by playing with peers under the watchful eyes of caring "baby-sitters" who keep them from harm and encourage their social and emotional development? Or are their 3- and 4-year-old minds ready to tackle phonics and tetrahedrons?

There are signs in some pockets that the learn-by-playing advocates and the learn-by-instruction proponents are finally seeking some common ground, in recognition that both aspects are necessary for a child's success in school and life.


* California in May will unveil its first guidelines for preschools for children aged 3 through 5. They will emphasize the influence of family and culture on academic success and reiterate the need for parents to read regularly to and interact with their youngsters.

* At a Berkeley preschool where playtime and early literacy are well established, 4-year-olds now spend 40 minutes a week getting exposure to the rudiments of arithmetic and geometry. Meanwhile, this year for the first time, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' standards will cover pre-kindergarten.

* Vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore and Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, are among a growing cadre of politicians and educators clamoring for universal preschool.

Over the last three decades, research has revolutionized educators' thinking about how babies and children learn. Among the chief findings have been that even very young children can grasp complex concepts and that stable, nurturing care enhances learning.

Quality of Child Care

The research is verifying what mothers have long known: that children learn more exuberantly when their relationships with caregivers and family members are steady and warm.

Studies also indicate that 3- and 4-year-olds who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to do well academically and socially. They are less likely to drop out of school, commit crimes or be placed in special education classes. They generally have more successful professional lives.

Low-income children, in particular, benefit from preschool experiences, researchers say, because they typically come from homes where exposure to reading and math is limited.

"[Such] children are already behind when they reach the classroom door," said Nicholas Zill, vice president and director of Westat, a Washington research organization. It is becoming clear, Zill added, that achievement difficulties among disadvantaged children cannot be blamed solely on bad schools.

Quality child care would be a balm for this social ill. Unfortunately, experts note, the supply of reliable, affordable child care and preschool has not kept up with rising demand as more women, including those on welfare, enter the work force.

Aside from New York and Georgia, which have broadly based preschool programs, most states have steered clear of embracing universal preschool and from adopting standards for early childhood education. California, for one, is hampered by the high cost that universal preschool would entail and a drastic shortage of qualified teachers and space.

Still, if the choice is between class-size reduction and preschool, the evidence indicates that preschool is more effective, noted Edward F. Zigler, a professor at Yale who was the father of the nation's Head Start program for low-income children.

One noted child care expert calls the failure to promote preschool "definitely misguided."

If care providers are "only protecting health and safety, that is a lost opportunity" for learning, said Joan Lombardi, a former director of the child care bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Many early childhood authorities say states have focused instead on content standards, testing and accountability measures for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Under such high-stakes systems, teachers, starting in kindergarten, are feeling pressured to show that their students are achieving.

Kindergarten teachers are thus pleading for better prepared pupils. To some teachers, readiness means that children can recite the alphabet, count to 10 and print legibly. More essential for others is that children know how to sit still, understand and follow directions and cooperate with classmates. All agree that eagerness to learn is a key element.

California's new preschool guidelines will attempt to address those concerns. The state Department of Education consulted with scores of early childhood authorities and aligned the guidelines with state content standards. State officials will use training videos to get the word out to preschool teachers statewide.

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