Screens and Worksheets Aren’t the Solution for Preschoolers’ Learning

There is so much talk these days about how much school kids are missing. About how much “learning” is being lost. And I can’t help but wonder when school became the end-all and be-all for children. Especially for young children – who, until recently in history, were never part of the schooling scene anyway and managed to do just fine. I, for example, never attended preschool or kindergarten because early childhood education wasn’t a “thing” when I was young. Nor was it free, and my family had no money to spare for something considered nonessential.

Don’t get me wrong; I think a developmentally appropriate preschool or early learning center has wonderful advantages for the little ones. (And I think the teachers and caregivers in these places are stars.) But a developmentally appropriate preschool is one in which play is the primary vehicle through which children learn. In which active learning is the norm.

That means that the children

  • sort and stack blocks and other manipulatives to learn such quantitative concepts as high, low, wide, and narrow, as well as physics principles (math and science);
  • sing and dance and act out stories to promote emergent literacy;
  • grow plants from seeds, explore the outdoor environment, and investigate at sand and water tables to gain additional scientific knowledge; and
  • try on various roles through dramatic play (social studies).

And I ask you: Which of these lessons cannot be learned at home during this pandemic that has us all locked down? There may not be a water table available, but surely there’s water and a bucket. And if there’s a paintbrush, too, parents can send their children outdoors to “paint” the side of the house or building and see absorption and evaporation in action.

There may not be a parachute available, but surely there’s a spare sheet or large towel and some cotton balls parents and children can use to see the principle of gravity in action.

Maybe there aren’t even blocks or manipulatives available – such things being considered too old-fashioned these days. But there must be coins, or something similar, that children can stack and sort. And while they’re doing that, in addition to exploring math and science concepts, they’ll be honing those all-important fine motor skills.

Although we may not be able to interact with others right now, we can – and should – get outdoors, where nature has more to offer than any formal schooling ever could. Outdoors, there are myriad experiences for the senses, regardless of where a child lives. A listening walk, during which children identify either manmade or natural sounds, qualifies as a lesson in emergent literacy because active listening is a component of language arts. An air walk, during which children witness all the ways in which air has an impact, is a science lesson.

None of these lessons has less validity because it isn’t being offered in a school building. Nor do these lessons fade away! Once a child has acted out the words a parent is reading to her, she not only comprehends their meanings; also, she retains their meanings. Counting the number of steps it takes to get from one side of the room or yard to the other, or setting the table, grants her a better understanding of one-to-one correspondence than she could garner from any app or worksheet. The research is clear: The more senses children use in the learning process, the more information they retain.

I suspect that when the experts bemoan the months of learning being lost, they’re talking about a failure to remember that which the children were forced to memorize – to swallow and regurgitate. That’s not authentic learning. Authentic learning may not be quantifiable, but it is the kind of learning that lasts. The kind that is meaningful and will serve our children well in life.

Parents are frantic right now, worried that they don’t know how to “teach” their children. And they’re turning to screens and worksheets for the solution. But screens and worksheets, which use only the sense of sight, aren’t the answer. There is little to no active, authentic learning possible with either screens or worksheets.

What parents really need to understand is that young children are born with a love of learning. They don’t need to be encouraged to learn; it’s simply what they do – as they play, explore, and discover. As my colleague Tom Hobson has written, there are plenty of things to worry about right now but your young child’s schooling isn’t one of them.


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