Play Based Vs. Academic Based Learning

From Reggio Emilia to Every Child Ready

Preschoolers at Capitol Hill Learning Group work together in the classroom. (Photo: Capitol Hill Learning Group)

Three and four year olds at Brent Elementary (301 North Carolina Ave. SE) dabble with watercolors and magic markers. No teacher tells them how to uncap the marker or explains the correct ratio of water to paint — they learn through their own trial and error.

Across the Hill, preschoolers at AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School (138 12th St. NE) sit in small groups to learn new songs and read aloud. A teacher guides them through the lesson — still allowing them to engage their own curiosities — but leading a structured session.

DC parents have access to free or paid preschools for their pre-kindergarten-aged children. But with several teaching philosophies available, parents need to consider what type of program their child best thrives in: a play-based program like Brent’s or an academic-based one like AppleTree’s.

The District offers a good mix of each program type, said E.V. Downey, an educational consultant and owner of Downey School Consulting. Every preschool will include some form of play because children in school from roughly 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. need that fun engagement. But how much free-form learning and how much structure depends on a school’s philosophy.

At AppleTree, students learn in the Every Child Ready program; at Brent, the Reggio Emilia; at Capitol Hill Learning Group (433 Ninth St. NE), a hybrid of play and teacher-directed; and at several other DC Public Schools (DCPS) and private tuition-based schools, Creative Curriculum, Montessori, Tools of the Mind, Waldorf and Dual Language.

Reggio Emilia

The basis of the Reggio Emilia learning model, founded by Loris Malaguzzi after World War II, is to help a child explore and learn through their own curiosity.

“What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources,” Malaguzzi in the book “Hundred Languages of Children.”

Brent Elementary relies on this child-directed learning, said Brent early childhood teacher Amy Harding-Wright. There is the student, the teacher and their environment. At Brent — in mixed three and four year old classrooms with a total of 17 students — they use provocation through materials to let each child explore through trial and error.

“We might put a new material out on the table and just let the kids come in and we observe what they’re doing — what they see, what they say, letting them explore,” Harding-Wright said. “We’re really letting them work with materials and figure out how they can be used.”

In a more directed classroom, a teacher may immediately show the child how the toy works, and while in both situations the children learn how it functions, allowing them to figure it out on their own builds their problem solving skill set, she said.

“If you’re allowing children to explore on their own, it’s going to foster their creativity and their imagination,” she said.

Teachers pay close attention to what each child shows interest in, though, she said. That way when they talk with their students, they can ask specific questions about what they learned from one toy or one exploration in the classroom. They push them to actively use their new knowledge.

Harding-Wright took her class last year to the Wonder exhibit at the Renwick Gallery (1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). Her students loved the bug room, which was filled with artwork made from real insects. Then, they took their interest back to the classroom, got cardboard refrigerator boxes and created their own bug exhibit.

“We’re taking them on these field trips, but we’re trying to be as child directed as we can,” she said.

Every Child Ready

AppleTree students spend their day in a series of planned, structured components. In the morning, they learn language and reading, and in the afternoon, math and science, said AppleTree Chief of Schools Anne Zummo Malone. The school relies on a more academic-based program it developed and piloted — Every Child Ready. Classrooms of 20-22 preschoolers at a given AppleTree school learn through 10, three-week long theme-based topics during the year.

Students can learn about archeology one theme and paleontology another, she said. But every component during the day — ready, science, math, etc. — touches on the theme. The journaling component helps the children go from little to no writing ability to writing short letters or drawings by the time they enter the four-year-old group.

“It’s a structured day but students are engaged all day long,” Malone said. “There are lots of opportunities for hands-on learning; there is a lot of socialization between students and teachers.”

Students can choose one of several parts of the room to play in, like the construction area the art and easel area and the investigation location, she said. But the teacher will visit each part and pull the children into 10 to 12 minute small group, focused instruction. It’s a mix of allowing them to explore, but then engaging them into teacher-directed learning.

Last year during the dinosaur theme, students spent the first week in a basic, guided introduction to the history and science during their regular components. In week three, though, students could tell the teacher or their friends all about dinosaurs — all on their own.

“By the third week it’s dinosaur mania,” Malone said. “They are ready to talk about dinosaurs and really have a strong understanding of them and fossils. It’s much more than surface level knowledge.”

The structured learning helps students who thrive in routine-based environments, Malone said. Many preschoolers need that predictable schedule each day, especially because preschool is likely their first introduction into a school setting.

A Hybrid of Child and Teacher Directed

In the last 20 to 30 years, parenting has shifted from more hands-off to fixing every problem or directing every hour in the day for their children, said Capitol Hill Learning Group (CHLG) Program Director Martha Herndon.

“Kids didn’t learn to be resilient, they didn’t learn to adapt to things because parents shifted and adjusted and fixed things for their kids,” she said. “We’re trying to bring that resilience back.”

CHLG relies on a mix of both directed and play-based learning models. At the independent preschool, which operates out of the Washington Community Fellowship church, they teach their students through an eclectic model based on fiver predictors of student success: connectedness and accountability; possessing adaptability and resilience; developing emotional intelligence; targeting a clear outcome; and making good decisions.

In the classroom, a teacher at CHLG will explain a project or activity to the students and then allow them to add in their own ideas based on their experiences, Herndon said. A teacher may plan a lesson on dolphins and require her students to focus on that lesson as she teaches — a structured approach. But she won’t give the answers to all the questions she later asks, forcing the children to think for themselves.

“Look at CEO’s of startups,” Herndon said. “It took them a long time--adaptation, resilience, understanding what the market would bare, dealing with interference from competitors--to succeed on their own.”

And when it comes to emotional development, expecting children to take responsibility for their actions teaches them accountability. Free-form play feeds creativity, and keeping rules and routines also gives them the skills they’ll need to interact in elementary, middle and high school, she said.

“Allowing children time for free play encourages adaptability and resilience and provides opportunities for children to learn to make good decisions and grow in their emotional intelligence,” Herndon said.

Other Options

Expeditionary Learning — EL learning started in 1991 at Harvard Graduate School of Education, with the help of Outward Bound USA. It is based on applying learning to real life experiences and using exploration of the students’ own environment to fuel lessons, according to EL Education. It is based on 10 principles: primacy of self-discovery, having wonderful ideas, responsibility for learning, empathy and caring, success and failure, collaboration and competition, diversity and inclusion, the natural world, solitude and reflection, and service and compassion.

EL schools in DC include Two Rivers Public Charter School (1227 Fourth St. NE), Capital City Public Charter School (100 Peabody St. NW), Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School (30 P St. NW), and more.

Montessori — This philosophy started in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori. This preschool style focuses on child-centered learning and developing the “whole child”: physical, social, emotional and cognitive, according to the American Montessori Society. It is structured play that arranges tools and materials around the classroom for students to explore, while teachers engage and observe.

Montessori schools in DC include the Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan (215 G St. NE), Lee Montessori Public Charter School (200 Douglas St. NE), Aidan Montessori School (2700 27th St. NW) and more.

Tools of the Mind — Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong started Tools of the Mind in 1993. The idea focuses on children mastering their own behavior to control what they learn in the future, according to  Using make-believe play and interacting with other children, students in this program learn about literacy, math and science through structured activities. The teachers control the environment and direct the focused learning.

Tools of the Mind schools in DC include Payne Elementary (1445 C St. SE), Garfield Elementary School (2435 Alabama Ave. SE), and more.