Preschool Academics: Learning What Comes Naturally – by David Elkind

David Elkind is a Professor Emiritus of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. He has written extensively and is perhaps best known for his popular books — The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Miseducation, and The Power of Play. Professor Elkind is a past president of NAEYC.

Several years ago I was in one of the observation booths of our Children’s School at Tufts. There was a remarkable class of four year olds I had heard about, and wanted to watch. I was soon joined by a mother of one of the children in the group. After a few moments I could tell that she was getting agitated. I asked her if there was anything wrong. She replied, “They are playing.”

I looked at the children in their various interest areas; some in the drama corner, some painting at easels, others in the block area. They were all busy; deeply involved in the activities they had chosen to engage in. It looked like very productive classroom to me so I asked her why the playing was so troublesome to her. She replied, “Well my friend’s son goes to another nursery school and he is learning his letters and numbers, even works on the computer for goodness sake! How is my son going to be able to compete?”

Her comment reflects a widely held misunderstanding about children’s play. In part the error results from the fact that we use the term play to refer to everything from a baby playing with a rattle to an adult playing with an a golf club. When adults see children playing, they think of play in the adult sense, as a recreational activity that provides a respite from work. In addition the antipathy for towards play is carryover from our Protestant work ethic wherein play was seen as bordering on the sinful. Thanks to the baggage the term play carries with it, parents believe that while they children are at “school” they should be working — school is their work place isn’t it?

There was not time to give this mother a full explanation of the difference between child play, and adult play. I simply pointed out to her that the children in the drama corner were learning social skills like cooperation, taking turns, and following instructions. The children painting at easels were learning important motor control, color mixing and ways of expressing themselves graphically. Children in the block corner were learning geometric shapes, size relationships, and the basics of gravity. There was a lot of academic learning going on; but it was going on in a self initiated, age-appropriate way. I am not sure I convinced her, but if I had had more time I would have given her the more detailed account of the academic importance of early childhood play that I will offer below.

Play and learning

Play is simply shorthand for our capacity for curiosity, imagination, and fantasy — our creative dispositions. What makes play unique is that it enables us to create new learning experiences. To illustrate, an infant who drops a rattle from the crib, is learning about gravity. He or she is also creating a game with the parent who is retrieving the rattle. In addition, the infant learns that different objects make different sounds when they are dropped. Certainly children can learn these lessons from watching an adult perform the same actions, but it is much more powerful when the infant creates these experiences through his or her own actions. Learning by doing is always much more effective than learning by watching.

Perhaps the best example of how children learn from their self-created experiences is babbling. No one teaches the infant to babble, it comes entirely from the infant. In the process of vocalizing, the infant creates all of the sounds needed to speak any language on earth. As the infant listens to the language being spoken around him or her, the baby selects those vowels and consonants that are unique to the language of the parents. As toddlers, children often create their own grammars. So called “pivot” grammars are a case in point. That is the child uses a single word as the pivot of many different shorthand sentences, “Baby up,” “Baby drink,” “Baby down,” and so on. Language is a powerful example of the importance of children’s self-initiated play activities in their social learning. Play, however, is equally important in children’s learning of reading and math.


Reading is an extraordinarily complex, socially created and transmitted skill. Learning to read depends, in part, upon the development of reasoning abilities that only emerge between the ages of four and seven. Yet there is much that we can do to prepare the child for reading instruction, if we do so in a playful way. For example, I was reading a book to my one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Maya (Maya by the way has Down’s Syndrome.) It was a book she was very familiar with; and after going through it several times, she pushed it away, making it clear she was no longer interested. She was in my lap making it difficult for me to get up to fetch another book. So I grabbed what was close at hand, the latest copy of Business Week. I began reading an article about how we are underestimating the economic effects of outsourcing. Maya was perfectly happy to hear the discouraging statistics.  The point is, of course, that the content really did not make that much difference. Maya was busy attending to the sounds, the rhythms, and the intonations, that will provide her the language she will eventually speak. In addition, even at that early age, she was getting the impression that something on the page could be translated into speech. That is an all important prerequisite to learning to read and one of the reasons it is so important to read to young children. Maya, sitting comfortably in my lap, was also learning that Papa cared enough about her to sit with her and read. Children don’t formulate this idea, but they get it intuitively. It assures them that they are important in our lives and that we care about them deeply. And that is where self esteem really comes from.

The values of reading to children highlights the dangers of too much television viewing during the preschool years and particularly before the age of two. When we read to children, they look at the pictures in the book to be sure; but they are also attending very closely to the words we are saying (except perhaps when we are reading Business Week). That is why they get distressed if we leave a word or two out. Listening to us read helps children to make the auditory discriminations that are so essential to attaining reading skills. Reading is as auditory as it is visual. That is why, even as adults, we get hung up when we encounter words on the page that we cannot pronounce. We are subconsciously saying the words in our heads as we read.

Television makes it difficult for the child to attend to the words that accompany the visual images. We are programmed to attend to visual displays that are bright, colorful, and moving. That is what attracts children to television. Because they are so visually involved, children do not bother to listen. As a result, they are not learning the auditory discriminations they need for learning to read. In fact all that television viewing is doing for infants and young children is reinforcing their low level instinctual responses. That is why it is so distressing to learn that some 40 percent of three month olds are watching television for two hours a day and that by the age of three, 90 percent of children are watching television for 90 minutes a day (Vanderwater, 2007). Such viewing habits put young children at risk for developing a television addiction that can be very difficult to break at a later age.

Although there has been a long standing argument about whether children should learn whole language (from being read to and writing their own stories) or phonics (learning the sounds of letters in different configurations), it is really not an either/or situation. Whole language learning is what children do naturally from listening to and repeating stories, learning the names of the letters of the alphabet, and learning sight words such as “Stop” and “Go.” Many educators also believe that writing should precede formal instruction in phonics. Learning phonics is appropriate once children attain the age of reason (anywhere from five to seven) and can appreciate that one and the same letter can be sounded in different ways. Children who have acquired pre-reading skills through playful activities will be more motivated to read and will enjoy reading more than those who have learned in a more didactic fashion.


Like play, number has several different meanings which are often confused. Looked at from a developmental perspective, however, the different meanings of number, and the role of play in their attainment, becomes very clear. The child’s first concept of number is what is called nominal number. Nominal number is familiar to us as the number on a football or baseball jersey. These numbers don’t stand for a quantity of anything, but are really substitute names. This is the first way children (usually at age two or three) use numbers. Indeed, they create their own nominal numbers. My granddaughter Lily used the number “two” to indicate any set of things greater than one. If I held up two fingers she would say “two,” but she would also say “two” if I held up three fingers or four. The important point was that she was learning to associate number terms with quantities, albeit in her own way.

By the age of three or four, children begin to understand ordinal number. Such numbers have to do with ranks and do not represent units. An example of ordinal number is the assignment of numbers to ice skaters as measures of their performance. But there are no units of ice skating, or gymnastics, or any of the other sports that are numerically rated. The numbers used to rate ice skaters, or any other athlete, are simply ranks. Rank order refers to differences, but not to equal differences. School grades are another example. An A is not twice a B nor is a D half a C, and so on. Grades are simply ways of ordering performance when we do not have units of assessment. Three and four year old children are able to rank things in many different ways. When a child stacks a set of blocks from largest to smallest, he or she is demonstrating the ability to rank in size. And children are very much aware of the size of portions of foods they like and of who gets “more” and who gets “less.” Indeed many quarrels, both at home and at school, come from children’s assessments that they did not receive their fair share. In creating their own ranks children often use analogies. For example, in describing blocks of different sizes children will say, “This is the daddy block, this is the mommy block, and this is the baby block.”

Once they reach the age of reason children begin to use number in the sense of units. Units of whatever kind always imply equal intervals. The difference between one and two is the same as the difference between two and three. Once children attain the unit concept, addition and subtraction follow automatically. Attaining the unit concept, however, is much facilitated by the child’s previous attainment of nominal and ordinal number that derived from their own self-created learning experiences. From nominal numbers, children get the idea that things can be linked by sameness (everything more than one is two). From creating ordinal numbers, children begin to understand how things can be ordered according to differences. (Daddy block, mommy block, baby block.)

Through practicing nominal and ordinal ordering, children are able, once they attain the age of reason, to bring these two ideas of ordering together. It is at that point that they are able to construct the notion of a unit which is both the same and different from every other unit. The number 3 is the same as every other number in that it is a number, but it is different from any other number because it is the only number that comes after 2 and before 4. It is important to say that the child constructs the unit concept, and does not simply learn it from instruction. Children’s self-initiated creation of nominal and ordinal classifications and orderings greatly facilities their construction of the unit concept.

Through playful activities, young children acquire the prerequisite concepts for the attainment of the tool skills of reading and math. However well intended, when we substitute instruction for spontaneous play in early childhood, we hinder rather than help the attainment of these concepts. Accordingly, play in early childhood is neither a waste of time nor a luxury. Rather, play is a fundamental mode of learning that ensures the best preparation for benefiting from later later academic instruction.


Vanderwater, E. A., R.ideoout, V. J., Wartella, E. A., Huang, X., Lee, J. H., Shim, M. S. (2007). “Digital Childhood: Electronic Media and Technology Use Among Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers.” Pediatrics 119(5): e1006-e1015.

November/December 2007 Exchange

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