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2004

All Play and No Work Makes for a Bright Preschooler

By LYNNLEY BROWNING


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GLADYS DEUTSCH winces at tales of some parents using Picasso flashcards to coach their offspring for interviews at the famously competitive private pre-preschools in Manhattan. She frowns upon the notion of young children using computers. And she shudders at the growing push nationwide to test reading and writing skills in very young people.

It is through old-fashioned play, not through drills or technology or tests, that young children learn best, said Ms. Deutsch, the director of the Leila Day Nursery in New Haven.

The private, nonprofit school, founded in 1878 as a day care center for the offspring of poor working women, calls itself the oldest early childcare and education program in continuous operation in Connecticut.

”Some people say: ‘Children just come here to play. They’re not learning,”’ Ms. Deutsch said during a recent interview at the school, which marked its 125th anniversary last month with a documentary exhibition at the New Haven Colony Historical Society. ”But they are learning in a way that’s embedded and engrained in their play and their activities.”

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But play can carry a price.

The annual bill for a full-time 3-year-old at Leila Day, which caters to working parents of all means — not just the poor –since around the 1940’s, is $10,950. Private grants and state financing support a sliding tuition scale, in which some students pay as little as 20 percent of the full amount.

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The school prides itself on its ethnic, national and socioeconomic diversity; there are children of hairdressers as well as of doctors and Yale professors.

But while state funds help promote socioeconomic diversity, it can intrude upon the school’s traditional practices. This year, in order to meet state-financing criteria, Leila Day is carrying out a pilot developmental-assessment program in which teachers will formally gauge students using portfolios of their work and art and anecdotal observations. Traditionally, the teachers relied mostly on their knowledge of the students.

”Is there more emphasis on academic skills in the state? I think so,” Ms. Deutsch said. ”But we believe very deeply that the kind of play-based activities the children have are meeting that goal.

”In Connecticut, the state is obsessed with testing and standards, and with No Child Left Behind, there’s an incredible emphasis on testing and measurable outcomes.”

”Play” at Leila Day, which occupies an ivory-colored Victorian house amid tree-lined streets and stately homes, does not mean a chaotic free-for-all. Nor does it signify a rigid routine. Rather, it means a child-centric day in which students freely initiate imaginative activities with dolls, puzzles, dress-up clothes and a myriad other old-fashioned toys, all while being engaged verbally by attentive teachers. Plain wooden blocks are everywhere.

Spontaneity, not preset plans, drives the day. Recently, in one room for 3 and- 4-year-olds, some children began talking about the color of their eyes and hair. The head teacher made a chart in which children could mark their colors and encouraged them to paint self-portraits.

”We’re not going to talk to 3 1/2-year-olds about fractions,” Ms. Deutsch said. ”Three blocks and how they sort, categorize and arrange them — that’s what’s meaningful to a child.”

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There are 80 children in Leila Day’s full-time program, ranging in age from 3 to 6, and 18 older children 6 to 8 who attend an after-school program. Nearly half the school’s children have parents who work at Yale. Classes are small, with 22 teachers, most with higher degrees, and three full-time teachers per 12 to 18 students and additional part-time instructors.

Originally known as ”The Day Nursery” and later as ”The Mothers’ Aid Society,” the original Leila Day was founded by social-minded New Haven society women to help widows and women married to drunkards receive quality child care and school-arranged work as laundresses. The school is named for the niece of a 19th-century Connecticut governor.

Leila Day, which first embraced the play approach in the 1930’s, has long catered to working parents, opening at 7:30 a.m., closing at 5:30 p.m. and offering breakfasts, lunches and snacks, prepared onsite daily by a full-time professional chef. The spacious rooms have been transformed into cozy spaces through carefully-placed tables, chairs, shelves, and baskets for toys. There are no plastic furniture or noisy toys. There is a library nook, with more than 1,500 children’s books. Tomes are also scattered throughout the airy rooms. Children spend on average two hours outside each day, on a tree-lined playground on two and a half acres.

Indoors or outside, intense play fosters what Ms. Deutsch calls a holistic experience, one that she said develops social, emotional and physical skills as well as the intellectual ones.

Walter S. Gillian, an associate research scientist at Yale University’s Child Study Center, said that among many educators, ”it’s a widely held belief that children learn through play.”

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In general, he said, entering the far more structured world of elementary school after years of play can be ”a rude shock” to some students.

Stephen Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said that while he was not familiar with Leila Day, an approach based on play ”leads to serious academic skills” and ”fosters social skills, an ability to get along with others and an ability to take creative, independent actions.”

Still, some parents say that they supplement their child’s Leila Day experience with more formal training at home.

Akhil Amar, a law professor at Yale University, said that he and his son Vik, 5, played games at home with flashcards depicting numbers, dinosaurs and presidents. ”I’m being interactive with my kid and having fun,” Mr. Amar said.

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He added that while he loved Leila Day, ”the games I’m playing will help him be ready for all the pencil and paper stuff” when Vik enters kindergarten at the private Foote School, in New Haven, next fall.

Leila Day has a gentle approach to teaching reading and writing skills. Kindergartners are not corrected if they use what the school calls ”inventive spelling.” And while teachers read out loud, children are not prodded to begin reading on their own.

That method pleases Janet Morford, whose 6-year-old daughter, Isabel, is in kindergarten at the school.

”They show an incredible respect for children’s play as the way that children learn about themselves and the world,” said Ms. Morford of Hamden, whose husband, Jose Antonio Cheibub, is a board member at the school.

Still, Ms. Morford, who teaches French at a secondary public school, said that a handful of Leila Day parents appeared to doubt a hand’s-off, play-intensive approach as preparation for a competitive world. ”Some parents who don’t realize the value of play say things like: ‘My kid isn’t reciting his ABC’s. Is he going to be ready for first grade?”’ she said.

Leila Day, she continued, ”doesn’t buy into this philosophy that your kids have to be a superstar at 3 1/2.”

”It’s about empowering kids and honoring who they are right now, but not necessarily preparing them for Harvard even though a lot of these kids will go on to great schools.”

Graduates of the school, one of several highly-regarded, play-intensive child care programs in New Haven, go on to private schools such as Foote and Cold Spring, as well as to local public schools.

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For some parents, the school’s frequent scheduled closings of 48 weekdays off for the 2003-4 academic year is frustrating. ”It’s nightmarish for working parents,” said Prof. Oona Hathaway, who teaches at Yale Law School and lives in New Haven.

Still, she said that her daughter Ava, 4, loves her days at school and recently brought home an elaborate pirate-boat that she had made from old cardboard boxes.

”They must have read a book about pirates,” Ms. Hathaway said. ”It’s a very delicate balance that they manage to strike. There isn’t this formal, structured learning and yet there’s so much learning going on.”

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