Play Based vs. Academic Programs

Ms. SamCurriculum

I want to preface this blog by stating that not only is teaching one of the oldest professions on the planet but education (as all industries and businesses) has evolved and benefitted from our collective learning as a human race over time and continues to do so. This piece assesses the pros and cons of Play Based and Academic (Traditional) programs in a similar vein to my previous comparative/contrastive piece on the Reggio Emilia and Montessori approaches to early childhood education (ECE). Essentially, I am reviewing the two main foundations integral to child development: free play and choice vs traditional structured work.

Fun with Reggio
Regardless of whether you are a staunch supporter of any these leading icons of industry - Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson, Montessori, Steiner, Malaguzzi etc. - generally speaking they all stem from the roots of either Play Based or Academic philosophies. Basically, we all belong to one camp or another and both incorporate challenges and frustrations not only for the students but educators as well. No single philosophy or educational approach is bullet-proof, just as none is perfect for every person. Culture and your own schooling experience also tends to heavily influence your preference for your child(ren). Although I was raised in Australia, I did attend Keio Girls Highschool in Tokyo for a year. If you’ll pardon the pun, this was quite a foreign experience for me as you daren’t even ask a question let alone correct your teacher if they made a mistake. That said, we as parents, family members, caregivers or teachers have a responsibility to keep up to date on this critical aspect of a young child’s life.
You may feel strongly that an Academic program will ensure scholastic success and are mystified when your child isn’t advancing at the same rate as their peers. Bear in mind all children have different temperaments and learning styles so sometimes your ideal setting or philosophy just isn’t a “good fit” for them. Thankfully there are numerous approaches available to us and by utilizing ScuttleBugs hybrid approach (we never try to force a square peg into a round hole) your child can still achieve learning success. Pay attention to your own opinion – has it changed over time? You may need to alter your perspective on what knowledge means.

These days we understand that ECE is “approached from two differing viewpoints: one focused on the benefits of play for developmental learning and one focused on the benefits of play for academic learning“ (Source).

This paper by S. Farquhar & E.J. White, while somewhat of a drier read, is quite informative (if you can wade through all the formal terminology). “Current conceptual delineations of pedagogy also address the wider scope of educational questions such as:

What does it mean to teach?

What does it mean to learn?

What does it mean to be human?

What and whose knowledge is important?


Pedagogy, then, makes vital connections between teaching, learning, knowledge, society and politics and generally involves a vision about society, people and knowledge.”

As a mom of two boys who both graduated from ScuttleBugs and are now almost 8 (2nd) and 12(6th) grade, I’m coming at this from a few different angles especially as “Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines.” (Source)



I remember a parent and friend who experienced a handful of programs. They came to us from a nearby daycare. Their son attended ScuttleBugs for a few years then they decided to enroll him in a private academic school as he neared Kindergarten entry. They returned to us shortly thereafter reporting “they’re creating little automatons!”. The real focus in the preschool years should not just be on numbers, vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening - interaction. Get to know the personality of each child – they’re unique and have strengths/skills a-plenty. “What matters is that your child is learning from adults who engage and stimulate intellectual curiosity while imparting social skills.“ (Source)

And what of the importance of the environment? Both philosophies have distinct physical elements that set the tone of learning. Play Based programs divide the room into specific areas that encourage learning through hands on play with an underlying focus on certain developmental domains (dramatic play - manipulatives - art&craft - library etc.). While Play Based is less regimented, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t allow for pre-set materials and provide an invitation to join in the lesson. “Planning the environment to assist children to achieve outcomes is important in providing quality play experiences.”. Academic programs typically have what we know and recognize as a more traditional classroom setting with desks and chairs facing the teacher and a singular focus on cognitive instructional learning.
“We need to re-focus our standards on preparing the classroom environment so that children can thrive: Do teachers understand the principles of child development? Are they using a warm, responsive teaching style that elicits inquiry and problem-solving? Are they engaging multiple learning domains simultaneously or just teaching simple skills?”. 


“One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art.”
In Kathryn Ems’, (M.S. President of Parent Cooperative Preschools International) research paper ‘Play Based Vs. Academic Preschools: What the Research Says’ she notes that “Students who were in the play-based programs in their early years did substantially better than those in the academic programs. The children in the child-centered, play-based programs did best academically at the end of kindergarten, but most importantly, continued to grow and make academic gains over the next 4 years”.
Academic Success
Finland and Australia rank highest in the world for their ECE Preschool programs. “It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. They don’t start learning to read and write formally until they are 7 years old“. Imagine that! Being allowed to learn through play and exploration in those early formative years. Childhood should be fun. It instills an inclination to remain inquisitive and have a life-long love of learning, the outcome of which is far better than having education rammed down your throat prematurely, hating school or lacking self-esteem because your grades aren’t up to par.

If you know me, or have read any other works by me you’ll know that I am constantly saying “children are capable of far more than we give them credit for” – although I’m sure I’m not the first to make this statement! “The more I observe young children in action, the more faith I have that they are capable and powerful. But our expectations are often mismatched: We ask too much of young children pragmatically, but too little of them cognitively.” (Source)

Regardless of which ECE approach you have a preference for “children need secure, warm and trusting relationships so they are confidently supported in their explorations and risk taking.” (Source)

I confess I am biased in having benefitted from an Aussie upbringing and which obviously left a favorable lasting impression (now that I own a preschool). Personally, I feel that play based programs are better suited to younger children and what we’ve come to expect in home daycare or preschool settings. I do tend to lean more towards a formal academic approach from Elementary school onwards with increasing structure and intellectual content as the child ages and matures. This is in keeping with a well-known fact that logic and reason don’t typically kick in until 6 years of age (give or take a year). At ScuttleBugs we tend to focus and facilitate socio-emotional learning and guide our little ones to acquire life skills, at the same time as equipping them to venture further on their educational journey. After all, isn’t it better to give them the tools to be the best human being they can be and which can then be directed towards their specific goals later rather than expecting them to be exemplary scholars on day one? Scholars of what?
You may get lucky and find that perfect fit for you and your child straight away. But for many of us it’s a case of trial and error. This can be rough on everyone involved but is undeniably worth it. You’ll be so grateful when your child and their program/school gel and it’s a place where they learn and grow in a healthy way.