A group of students at Woodside Community School in Queens peered up at their teacher one morning this month, as she used an overhead projector to display a shape.
It looked like a basic geometry lesson one might find in any grade school, except for the audience: They were preschoolers, seated cross-legged on a comfy rug.
“What attributes would tell me this is a square?” asked the teacher, Ashley Rzonca.
A boy named Mohammed raised his hand, having remembered these concepts from a previous lesson. “A square has four angles and four equal sides,” he said.
As school reformers nationwide push to expand publicly funded prekindergarten and enact more stringent standards, more students are being exposed at ever younger ages to formal math and phonics lessons like this one. That has worried some education experts and frightened those parents who believe that children of that age should be playing with blocks, not sitting still as a teacher explains a shape’s geometric characteristics.
But now a new national study suggests that preschools that do not mix enough substance into their curriculum may be doing their young charges a disservice.
The study found that by the end of kindergarten, children who had attended one year of “academic-oriented preschool” outperformed peers who had attended less academic-focused preschools by, on average, the equivalent of two and a half months of learning in literacy and math.
“Simply dressing up like a firefighter or building an exquisite Lego edifice may not be enough,” said Bruce Fuller, the lead author of the study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you can combine creative play with rich language, formal conversations and math concepts, that’s more likely to yield the cognitive gains we observed.”
The study comes amid rapid expansions of taxpayer-funded preschool in cities like Washington, San Antonio and New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month that he would eventually expand the program, now open to all 4-year-olds, to 3-year-olds as well.
The new wave of preschools provide playtime, but their major goal is academic “kindergarten readiness,” and the study could provide ammunition for policy makers who want to keep on that course. It could also help officials like Mr. de Blasio make the case for even more public spending on prekindergarten programs.
Whether they will win over all parents is another question.
Many who are college-educated are wary of academic preschool, worrying it will quash the love of learning. At one prekindergarten information session in the affluent Brooklyn Heights neighborhood last year, parents asked not about math or reading, but about how often their children would be exposed to art and music.
One mother worried that the curriculum would be “dictated by the Department of Education”; the school’s staff reassured her that they would not use flashcards.
Some child development experts question whether the goal of the new pre-K — putting all children on a path to read and do simple math problems by the end of kindergarten — is appropriate, and whether it might detract from the socialization value that preschools have been known for.
Many children “are not ready to do that without being put under a lot of stress and strain,” said Joan Almon, an expert on play-based education with the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group.
Aware of the concern, the Berkeley study, which is being published this week in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, assessed the children’s behavior, based on interviews with their parents. It found that students did not seem to be hurt socially or emotionally by attending the more academic programs.
Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an expert on effective teaching, said the new research, which followed 6,150 students nationwide and was controlled for income and home environment, confirmed smaller-scale studies from Tulsa and Boston showing that academic prekindergarten programs benefited both poor and middle-class children. “These effect sizes are substantial,” Mr. Pianta said of the Berkeley paper.
Nevertheless, the study had limitations. It followed children for a relatively short period of time, and it remained unclear if the benefits of academic prekindergarten would extend beyond the end of kindergarten.
The study defined “academic-oriented” prekindergarten programs as those in which teachers reported spending time most days on activities such as sounding out words, discussing new vocabulary, counting out loud and teaching children to measure and tell time.
That is not to say that these schools are all letters and numbers. The de Blasio program requires two hours per day of play, which is typically broken into several smaller chunks.
After Ms. Rzonca’s geometry lesson, she released her students for 30 minutes of free time. As they cradled dolls, drew and made collages, Ms. Rzonca moved around the classroom, pausing to kneel next to individual children. She prompted them to dictate simple narratives about their activities. “Baby sleeps,” said Mohammed, whose collage featured a photo of a crib. Ms. Rzonca wrote the sentence down on a sticky note and attached it to his work.
Other methods of early childhood education will most likely continue to thrive, counting on devoted legions of parents. One example are Waldorf schools, which at the preschool level eschew academics in favor of play and do not begin formal reading instruction until first grade.
In Montessori schools, which occupy more of a middle ground, children are allowed to spend long stretches of the day in freely chosen activities, like painting or sorting colorful beads. Teachers generally do not lecture, but they do impart academic concepts, like how to sound out words, by inviting children to participate in one-on-one or small group lessons.
At the Aster Montessori School in Cambridge, Mass., what looks like child-directed play is referred to as “work time” and lasts for three uninterrupted hours — an eternity in little-kid minutes.
One Monday this month, a 3-year-old named Magnus began his morning at an easel, swirling blue watercolor paint. Other children counted wooden pegs and cut patterns into construction paper, largely without assistance from the classroom’s two teachers.
Kanan Patel, the school’s co-founder and a lead teacher, sat at a table with a boy named Thomas. She had arrayed a set of — yes, flashcards — in front of them. “I was thinking about something that begins with buh-buh-buh,” Ms. Patel prompted. Thomas, grinning, picked up the card that depicted a bicycle.
Though Aster is a private school, costing $17,500 for the full-day program, some public preschools around the country have adopted the Montessori method. Aster’s leaders will begin accepting state-funded students next year, as many private preschools in New York City now do.
Mr. Fuller, the Berkeley researcher, said a carefully constructed Montessori classroom could certainly encompass the effective teaching practices his study identified.
“I see it as emulating good parenting,” he said. “We try to get them to use their words if there is a conflict. When we’re baking, we have fun with measuring a half cup of flour. We’re not heavily didactic and totally directive, but we are introducing new knowledge and rich language.”
Amelia Sorensen, Magnus’s mother, said that she and her husband, a transportation engineer, had chosen Aster Montessori because they wanted a stimulating but “gentle” pre-K for Magnus and their other son, Gustav, 5.
Ms. Sorensen, a stay-at-home parent, acknowledged that “there’s not a lot of worksheets or stuff where you can look and say, ‘This is what my child did today.’”
Still, she is thrilled with her sons’ growing independence, from tying their shoes and zipping their coats to drawing. Her older son, who attends Aster Montessori for kindergarten, has begun to read, and she said she would not worry if Magnus took longer to reach the same milestone. “Kids can start formal education later,” she said.