When did preschool learning become the new nature or nurture debate? Decades of research have indicated that both nature and nurture contribute to the development of a human. Similarly, the past forty years of research have demonstrated that play and social learning contribute to the intellectual development of a preschooler. Play and learning are not separate from one another in early childhood development. This concept leads to confusion for parents looking for a preschool that stimulates intellectual development, as many schools promote their program as either “academic” or “play-based.”

Can play stimulate emotional, social, and intellectual development? Yes.  Is that considered academic? This is where human development becomes more complex.  Short term academic goals appear differently than long term intellectual goals among preschoolers. However, research points to the lasting benefits of intellectual goals as better predictors of later academic success.  Intellectual goals include reasoning, analyzing, predicting, questioning, curiosity, and a range of moral sensibilities. Whereas academic goals include more concrete skills, such as knowing the days of the week, the calendar, writing letters and memorizing facts.  Current research indicates that both academic and intellectual goals can coexist within a thoughtfully planned and balanced learning environment. This type of environment requires a highly skilled teacher that observes student interests, assesses learning frequently, and presents material in an interactive play-based way.

Research on play and play-based preschools consistently show that the frequency and complexity of play in the early years predict later school achievement, creativity, self-regulation, well-being and critical thinking. Conversely, preschools focused on direct instruction and teacher-directed activities produce immediate results, though such effects are found to be short-lived, usually disappearing by second or third grade. Meaning, children who are reading at age four are not necessarily better readers by age seven. More concerning, is that a reexamination of data on direct instruction reveal that many preschool children do not enjoy an academic focus, producing stress and disinterest later in school.

Preschool s with purposeful play components lead to academic outcomes that are in most cases, greater than those of direct instruction.  The most well-known of these studies is a longitudinal investigation of High Scope, a play-based preschool curriculum. Children attending a High Scope classroom for a single year were found to have higher levels of academic and social competence in later childhood and adolescence than those not attending preschool. At age forty, these participants showed higher earnings, higher employment rates, fewer incarcerations, and higher educational attainment.

Moreover, research indicates that’s children who have attended preschool’s categorized as “play-based” “developmentally appropriate” and “child-initiated “‖yielded greater academic outcomes in elementary and middle school than children who attended preschools categorized as “didactic” “academic” and “teacher directed.”

For learning to have its greatest impact, it needs to be engaging, curiosity-driven, and appropriately assessed. In high-quality preschools, learning is playful and exploratory as teachers skillfully weave in academic, intellectual, social, and emotional goals. They intentionally create invitations for children to play and create their own personal meanings with materials. A well designed playful environment stimulates healthy human development, which should be our most important goal. There is no debate on that.