Our Turn: Online preschool is no substitute for play-based learning

Published: 2/6/2020 6:30:23 AM
Modified: 2/6/2020 6:30:13 AM

We read with concern David Brooks’s Jan. 28 article about the New Hampshire Department of Education’s goal of enrolling 200 families in a pilot program for online preschool called Upstart.

Although Brooks’s article did not mention the concerns about online preschool, there are many reasons to be cautious about bringing online preschool into our state.

A strong body of research, accumulated over decades, demonstrates how young children learn best – through exploration, play and interactions with each other and with caring adults.

Children need to use their bodies and their senses to learn about the world. They need to move! They learn about language by engaging in conversations with responsive adults and hearing and joining in to stories, songs, rhymes and play with words. And they learn to think creatively and solve problems through experiences like playing pretend, building with blocks and making up their own games in play with other children. Play also supports the development of social and emotional skills that we now know are essential for school success, such as self-regulation, persistence, perspective-taking and attention.

In contrast, online preschool programs like Upstart focus on discrete academic skills, like recognizing letters, colors and shapes. Rather than promoting creative or divergent thinking, they focus on right or wrong answers. They don’t engage children in give-and-take interactions or conversations. Instead, they promote the false idea that learning happens when young children sit quietly in their seats, staring at a screen.

An overwhelming body of research demonstrates that young children learn through play, and that the skills they need to be successful in school are most effectively learned through hands-on play. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in its research-based Policy Statement on Media and Young Minds (2016), states that, “Higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.”

It doesn’t make sense to us that New Hampshire, which now requires by law that all kindergartens be play-based, is welcoming in an online preschool program that is the opposite of play-based.

A program like Upstart might not be as problematic if it was just a 15-minute-a-day supplement to a high-quality early education program – if all the children enrolled were also attending play-based, high-quality preschools. But perhaps the biggest danger from programs like Upstart is that states may decide that these programs are an adequate substitute for state-supported, high-quality preschool. That is what happened in Utah, which, like New Hampshire, had no public preschool program. Instead, Utah is now designating state dollars to support the spread of online preschool. In Indiana and Montana, legislators have opted to put more state funds into online preschool than into supporting actual early childhood programs.

It is probably no accident that New Hampshire is the only New England state to offer a pilot of the Upstart program, because we are also the only New England state without any form of state-supported public preschool. In fact, New Hampshire is one of only six states in the country that does not offer any kind of state-supported pre-school, along with Utah, Indiana, Idaho, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Online preschool may save our state money, but at what cost to children and families? Young children’s learning needs cannot be met through virtual programming. We urge New Hampshire educators, policymakers and families to advocate for the high-quality early education our children deserve, not a cheap, screen-based alternative. And we urge journalists at the Concord Monitor and other publications to investigate the issues associated with online preschool and share that information with the general public.

(Patricia Cantor, Mary Cornish and Elisabeth Johnston are faculty members in early childhood education at Plymouth State University. Karen Sanders is the director of the Center for Young Children and Families at Plymouth State University.)




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