Getting ‘rigor’ right in preschool, or avoiding rigor mortis in 4-year-olds


With more funding for preschool comes more scrutiny. In Michigan, state funding for preschool has more than doubled, with 56 percent of eligible four-year-olds now in the high-quality Great Start Readiness Program. With federally-funded Head Start, 67 percent of eligible “fours” in the state get high-quality preschool.

Kellye Wood

Kellye R. Wood is interim Early Childhood Director at Oakland Schools.

With more funding for preschool comes more scrutiny. In Michigan, state funding for preschool has more than doubled, with 56 percent of eligible four-year-olds now in the high-quality Great Start Readiness Program. With federally-funded Head Start, 67 percent of eligible “fours” in the state get high-quality preschool.

The good news is that legislators, policymakers, educators, and parents want to ensure that resources are used effectively: Children deserve the best. The bad news? This attention may have an unintended impact. Teaching strategies questionable even for older children may compromise preschool quality.    

A case in point is around the concept of “rigor.” In the best light, rigor is one of the new three Rs, along with relevance and relationships. Spurred anew by a national wave of third grade reading laws, though, the relevance and relationships that temper short-sighted interpretations of rigor get short shrift. Rigor rules the day. Educators, parents, and students rue the day.        

Today kindergarten is the new first grade and preschool threatens to become the new kindergarten. Play is being force-marched out of childhood. Many schools have taken a recess from much of the recess time children used to get. Heavy doses of skill-and-drill reassure adults unfamiliar with the science about how young children learn. Play and playful learning do not seem, well, very rigorous.   

Unknowing adults may think small children have small minds and that teachers should dispense instruction in pellets without wider purposes that children understand. While this may make sense to well-intentioned but misguided grown-ups, it literally does not make sense to children. Unlike pigeons, children learn best in real-life situations and playful application. The human brain fires on connected learning, and little children have not been on earth long enough to learn in any other way. As the caterpillar needs the chrysalis, young children need meaning. Denying this clips children’s wings.

Ironically, the wrong approach undermines what career- and college-readiness standards prize: Agile thinkers who problem-solve. Especially for young children, decontextualized instruction hurts comprehension and curiosity. This is ominous, because an informed sense of wonder fuels initiative, not to mention the human spirit. It manifests as willpower fueled by hope, compelling learners to answer questions. Even young children are capable of curious persistence, perhaps more capable than older children dispirited by education estranged from meaning.

Michigan lawmakers whose decisions affect how teachers teach must understand that young children learn differently. Rigor for four-year-olds does not look the same as rigor for nine- or nineteen-year-olds, though all involve critical thinking. Partners from the developmental sciences offer insight about how to optimize young children’s learning.  

One insight is that playful learning is “brain food.”  Play is texturized. Children “grab on” and climb higher. They use their most complex language and thinking in playful interactions that include an aspect of pretend or imagination, the first form of abstract thought. Moreover, high-quality student engagement looks suspiciously like play.   

Playful learning leverages self-regulation. Children are motivated to self-regulate not just behaviorally but cognitively in play. If one’s role is to be the mother, one strives “to mother,” even if it would be fun to wail loudly with the “babies.” When friends act out a story, they must sequence the action. Playful attempts to self-regulate are not just child’s play but drive learning.

Indeed, human development is about growth in self-regulation and corresponding benefits: Greater self-efficacy and school success, better jobs and wages, closer relationships. Play, a species behavior for adaptive learning, scaffolds human progress. Like exercise develops the physical body, playful learning develops the intellect.   

Adults must be rigorous about providing playful learning that engages children. High-quality preschool is intellectually lively and transcends academics. The Michigan State Board of Education’s standards of quality for prekindergarten make rigor real. Teachers need time to deeply implement these standards, especially to change the growth trajectories – futures – of our most vulnerable young learners.  

Rigor must be understood as adults being ready. A great strength of the Michigan standards is that the onus is on adults for children’s active construction of knowledge. Educators must know and policymakers must respect these standards. Being ready also means paying teachers a living wage with benefits to reduce turnover. Turnover is particularly troubling in early education, because young children learn primarily through their relationships with teachers. Staffs that stay are staffs whose skills can be systematically developed.  

Early education is at a crossroad. Increased funding can make positive differences for more children. However, as the conversation shifts to return on investment, policymakers need the science of child development. More is known now than ever before about how children learn, but as a society, we seem to be going backwards, treating children like miniature adults. The last time this happened, the result was child labor laws. If we get this wrong, children will suffer. Indeed, perhaps not only early education but childhood itself stands at this crossroad.

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Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/19/2017 - 11:28am

Wow. Very unusual for Bridge to feature an actual education expert. Nothing new here though and it applies all the way up through college. Kids learn best by doing, by engaging in physical/kinetic learning activities, by making things. I volunteered in a Kindergarten about 20 years ago now. The kids were working around what they called centers. They were getting kind of loud, so the teacher says, "If you can't quiet down and work together, you'll have to do "dittos." Rigor is good, but it has to be productive. Doing drills and dittos just makes students hate learning. Great article.

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 12:22am

Ms. Wood lays out a compelling case about more than the preschool program but the K-12 system.
“Teaching strategies questionable even for older children may compromise preschool quality.” This suggest no matter how much is spent on preschool that what happens in the next 13 years could undermine all that spending and potential academic success rates. It points that money alone may not be the answer.

“The human brain fires on connected learning...” This says that the learning process should be designed from the child’s perspective rather than the adult positions. This tells me that the child needs to be engage, find interest and applicability of what is being taught, they need to have a means to make what they learn part of their own activities. It would seem when they learn it needs to be fun, spark their imagination, and be able to get immediate and personal application of what they learned. When they read, what they read needs to give them something they can only get from reading, imagination. When they learn math they need to use it and see how it works for them in what they are doing. And most important of all it helps them to develop their thinking process and see how thinking makes what they do better/more enjoyable/something that leads them to even newer things.
“Especially for young children, decontextualized instruction hurts comprehension and curiosity.” Ms. Wood is right about how if the child isn’t able to put what they learn into the context of application than they lose the ability to effectively apply what they learn, they lose the ability to look beyond the immediate and prepare for the future, they lose the capacity to learn from the past by trying to force what was then into what is now and they lose how to see what they do today are building blocks for the future. The best/worst example of this is in our politics/social programs, there is no effort/ability to understand the past and to build for the future, it is only about what can be gained today. How can a child that is only driven by the achievement of today understand that they are learning for a life time and for their children’s lifetimes? If a child is only taught the skills to pass a reading test in the 3rd grade how will they learn that reading will spark their thinking, their doing, their imagination for a lifetime? Think of a 3rd grader that reads Harry Potter books and how she has made reading an adventure that will take her beyond what she can see and into a world where she thinks. Think a 3rd grade boy that can only reads comic books but that takes him down the same path of thinking and imagination that girl will take. The girl passes the 3rd grade reading test and the boy doesn’t but both have found the value of reading and thinking for a life time. And this is true of all the subjects learned.

I agree and disagree with Ms. Wood on, “Early education is at a crossroad. Increased funding can make positive differences for more children.” Early education, all education is at a crossroad every time a student enters a classroom. But funding is the distraction not the crossroads. Just as the standards of prekindergarten fails when it is about adults from adults to adults, it fails to see learning from the student’s perspective because the primary focus is on funding not learning.
If you look at successful ideas they didn’t start with the cost and how to pay for what they would deliver, they delivered results and found what the market placed valued it at, and then they developed the means to convert that market value into paying for the results. In my youth, school funding was easy to get because the students were demonstrating more learning than their parents had, but today funding is more difficult to gain when the parents don’t see that their children’s learning is exceeding theirs.
Ms. Wood has written an article that makes me think, and offers hope that there are those in the profession that do look at learning from the student’s perspective, for whether it is the 4 year old, the 18 year old, or the mature adult learning works the same way relative to the individual. Learning happens when the “…brain fires on connected learning…”

Lindy Buch
Tue, 02/21/2017 - 11:54am

Nicely and persuasively articulated, Kellye!

Kimberli Boyd
Thu, 02/23/2017 - 12:49pm

So very true! Thank you for the gentle reminder. Let us share this article and other resources with our communities and policy makers as we strengthen advocacy efforts on behalf of truly effective educational experiences for young children.

DLynn Smith
Sat, 02/25/2017 - 9:37pm

Funding may have increased but.. the $$ goes to curriculums, data collection and the goal to create "faster" learners vs allowing children to learn as they are wired to learn. Thousands of $ is spent on collecting data on 4 year old's interactions yet some classrooms have no playground yet we KNOW 4 year olds NEED playgrounds. We have kindergarten children being made to feel they are behind because they aren't reading at a rate expected by the state? District? When research states NOT all children read at 5. Most read by 7 not by5.

Karen Sorvari
Mon, 05/01/2017 - 12:02pm

As I now have 2 great-grands, I forwarded this excellent article to their mothers. I was active in co-op nursery schools years ago, and found it to be very lively. (Affiliated with Merril-Palmer at WSU). Pre-school done right is one of the best things we can do for this country.