Welcome to the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting! First Edition: Preschool

Welcome to our first edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting!

What is a blog carnival? It’s a collection of blog posts, all focused on one theme, submitted by various bloggers. We plan to hold our carnival every month or two, rotating hosts to different blogs and choosing a new theme for each carnival. Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around The Clock wrote about blog carnivals in his post on the history of science blogs. Carnivals aren’t as common now as they once were. Instead, bloggers are sharing their work through social media outlets. But as Bora wrote, carnivals do something that social media can’t: “Each edition of a carnival is a magazine, a snapshot of the moment, and a repository of pieces that both their authors (by submitting) and hosts (by accepting) thought were good and important.” This is what we’re hoping to capture in our collections of posts on parenting and science.

atomblocks2b copySince I have the honor of being the first host of this Carnival, I’ve been thinking about what “Evidence-Based Parenting” means to me.

If you had asked me what evidence-based parenting meant when I first became a mom, I probably would have said something along the lines of, “doing everything right.” Now I know better.

I know that parenting is complex. I know that there are countless factors that enter into our parenting decisions, and even the best science can’t describe all of those variables. I’m a scientist by training, and I like to see data when I’m faced with a tough decision. But if I’m wondering if preschool is right for my kid, then I know that looking at the data will give me some ideas about important considerations and average outcomes, but it still isn’t going to tell what is the right choice for my child.

Why, then, do we care about the science? There’s something about parenting that invites judgment and controversy. Maybe it’s because we care so much about getting it right, but deep down, we’re afraid we’re doing everything wrong. Pick a parenting controversy, do an online search, and you’ll find strong voices supporting opposing sides. They’ll also both be citing science to back their opinions. My only solution to cutting through the spin in these cases is to get to know the field and broadly understand the evidence base for it. Or perhaps better still, since we’re busy parents and all, find someone you trust who can do this for you. That’s what this carnival is all about: science-minded bloggers compiling some of our best resources on a given topic to bring you a summary of the important science. It’s helpful (and more fun!) to work together on this, because we know that a true base of evidence requires multiple viewpoints, all committed to looking through the lens of science.

Evidence-based parenting means recognizing what we don’t know as well as what we do. It is an attempt to understand the questions as well as the answers. It isn’t a search for the One Right Way so much as it is a quest to understand the variation, complexity, and bias inherent to real life. After all, no scientist will tell you that their research has answered all the questions; instead, they know that every new experiment uncovers both new knowledge and new questions. To me, it is this spirit of curiosity that defines evidence-based parenting.

Let’s get to the posts for our first Carnival. Preschool: Do you need it? What kind is best? How can we even measure that?

Melinda Wenner Moyer’s piece on Slate, The Early Education Racket, stimulated a lot of conversation in my parenting circle. “Research suggests that if you have the time and money to argue over the merits of a Waldorf preschool versus a Montessori one, little Emma isn’t going to suffer either way. In fact, she probably doesn’t need to go to preschool at all,” Moyer writes. Start your Carnival reading here and breathe a sigh of relief. Your kid will probably be OK, whatever choices you make for preschool.

I know you’re still curious, though, so keep reading.

Over at Momma Data, Polly Palumbo lays out the evidence for why play is so important for preschoolers. Children learn naturally through play, and research shows that direct instruction like that found in academically focused preschools might actually get in the way of children’s curiosity, creativity, and natural development of problem-solving skills.

Jessica Smock of School of Smock writes about families that are opting out of formal preschool altogether and instead choosing to home school their preschoolers. Jessica explores some of the reasons behind this choice and what exactly a home-based preschool “curriculum” looks like. There are companies out there that will happily sell you a curriculum package with promises of giving your kid a jump-start in math and reading, but Jessica cautions against this approach. What preschoolers really need is – you guessed it – play! That’s true whether your child is learning at home or in a classroom.

Here on Science of Mom, I tackled another question that might play into your choice of preschool: Which is a better preschool environment, mixed-age or single-age classrooms? I wanted to learn more about this question because Cee is currently in a mixed-age, at-home daycare (not technically a preschool, but close enough for me). I found lots of interesting studies on the effects of age composition on children’s learning, but I also had fun critiquing those studies.

In her post, Momma, PhD gives her own account of the factors that went into choosing a preschool for her daughter. As a working scientist herself, Momma, PhD knows that kids are natural scientists, and the way they experiment is through play. That was a major factor in their preschool decision. She and her husband ended up choosing a modified Montessori program, so you’ll definitely want to read this post if you’re interested in this teaching philosophy.

Speaking of scientists, Jeanne Garbarino, Biology Editor at Double X Science, submitted a piece she wrote for Agora. Jeanne writes about her daughter’s natural curiosity about science and ponders how to answer her questions. She comes back to recent research about how kids learn best. It isn’t through direct instruction, even when your mom knows the answers. It’s about letting kids discover answers on their own and acknowledging that the process is just as important.

Jennifer Doverspike of Six Forty Nine sorted through a tremendous amount of research in search of answers to an important question: How do we define quality in preschool? And in a word, it’s complicated. And difficult. (OK, two words.) That’s actually not a big deal to many of us, because chances are good that we’re choosing between several high quality preschools. But it matters a lot to families who don’t have much choice, like those sending their kids to local Head Start programs. How do we give those kids the best preschool experience possible, and do it on a mass scale? These questions are really important to education policy. (This post is actually Jennifer’s third in her series on preschool. She’s also written recently about if preschool is necessary and if Head Start works.)

Suzanne Barston of Fearless Formula Feeder wondered if she should be concerned about the teaching style at her kids’ “down-home” preschool, but she quickly learned that the research is confusing and hard to interpret if you’re looking for answers to your personal preschool questions. “But through the panic, the uber-rational devil on my shoulder kept whispering “does it really matter? It’s preschool.” Sometimes recognizing the limitations of the science provides just enough reassurance to trust your gut, and that’s a good thing.

Finally, Tara Haelle at Red Wine and Apple Sauce walks us through a recently published study on the success of one preschool program. It’s helpful to look closely at one study in this way, because then you can start to see the limitations inherent to any single study. That’s something that you might not learn from media accounts of hot new research. Real outcomes from preschool are hard to study, so it takes a lot of work to understand what is effective and what isn’t. Like all of science, it isn’t a single study but rather a body of evidence that matters.

I loved reading all of these posts, and I encourage you to click through and check them out. Even though we tackled different questions, there was a clear theme that emerged. We all recognized the importance of play and discovery in preschool, and we were cautious about pushing kids to an academic curriculum too soon. That’s interesting coming from a group of highly educated women. I can’t help thinking, if Cee is going to follow in the footsteps of her parents, she may have a few decades of school ahead of her. Why not play a little longer?

We’d love to hear your comments – here or on our individual posts. How did you choose preschool – or not – for your children? How much was science and how much was gut?

You can also follow our discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #parentscience.

A quick list of our contributors for this First Edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting:

The Early Education Racket (Melinda Wenner Moyer)

Preschool Should Be Less School and More Play? (Momma Data)

Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play! (School of Smock)

Mixed-Age Preschool: Benefits and Challenges (Science of Mom)

Picking a Preschool (Momma, PhD)

On parenting (and teaching) in the name of science (Jeanne Garbarino)

Universal Prekindergarten: Evidence from the Field (Six Forty Nine)

Preschool Schmeeschool (Fearless Formula Feeder)

What Can We Learn from a Single Preschool Study? (Red Wine and Apple Sauce)

20 thoughts on “Welcome to the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting! First Edition: Preschool

  1. I loved reading all those articles! My oldest is turning four soon, and we’ve never planned to send her to pre-school. I’m a sahm and I guess you could say we do home school pre-school, but we definitely don’t follow any sort of curriculum. We participated in a co-op type pre-school group with four of her friends for a while, and she definitely got more out of it socially than any type of scholastic learning, which was fine with me. Part of me would love to send her to a montessori school, but we can’t afford to do that, so we do our own thing at home instead.

    • Thanks and glad you enjoyed the posts! I think that if you’re tuned into that child’s desire to learn, any kind of everyday activity can be an opportunity to learn. It doesn’t require a curriculum. I would be interested in hearing more from parents who kept their preschool-aged kids at home, particularly on the issue of social skills. Anyone want to share their experience with this?

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  4. I found that just play is great for 2 and 3 year olds but from about age 4 on, kids REALLY want to learn. They are desperate to be taught all about the world and really want information from adults. Some preschools get lazy at this stage (citing being playbased ad an excuse) and don’t respond to this need. So the preschool a parent chooses when their child is 2 is not necessarily what they would have chosen once their child is 4 or 5. Kids are so capable and can learn SO much!!!

    • I was talking yesterday with our childcare provider (in-home, mixed-ages, play-based) about how her setting works for older kids. She’s cared for several kids from infancy to kindergarten, and she says that they all started kindergarten knowing how to read. That wasn’t because of any special curriculum – she just says that the kids wanted to learn and she helped them as it came up. She has a strong background in early childhood education, and she thinks about pre-literacy and pre-math skills all the time, but she manages to incorporate it all into a context of play. So I agree with you that kids really want to learn, and you hope that you can find a setting where the teacher will encourage that natural curiosity. Do you think there are limits to how much learning can happen in the context of play and discovery?

  5. Thanks for hosting, Alice! This has been tremendous fun working with all these smart women! I’ve learned a lot, and it’s been fascinating to see how each of us brought our own perspective to the topic. We all came up with similar themes, but readers can learn different perspectives from each of our posts. I’m looking forward to the next carnival and the topics that we take on next! And I can’t wait for readers to chime in with their own experiences….

  6. Many head starts have numberous benefits and hard working teachers and numberous benefits for children and their parents… Some centers are beligerated with problems which brings their efficency down. A good center will even have you learning with and thorough the children and teachers. As for preschool and VPK, if the parents do it at home, that is fine but a children that does not know her letters and numbers and basic skills she will be behind her peers who have been learning since 3-4 and she or he will be struggling to catch up even in kindergarden.

  7. This is a great discussion. The most encouraging thing to come out of it (to me, at least) is that there is no one right way to approach preschool. That may come as a relief to those who live in areas where it’s hard to secure a spot or the programs are very expensive.

    To answer your question, we are on a waiting list for a small preschool that mixes the age groups together for part of the day. We made this selection based on recommendations from friends and on the good feelings we got when speaking with the director and visiting the facility. It may be a while before our son gets a spot, but I’m not panicking that my son will be “left behind”—thanks to science. Specifically the studies that indicate that a nurturing and enriching home environment are satisfactory until a child reaches kindergarten. I was especially struck by a (data-rich) article in the Smithsonian Magazine on Finland’s public schools, regarded as among the world’s best. Compulsory schooling in Finland does not begin until age 7! And yet, the pupils come out of the system socialized, prepared for higher education, and fluent in three languages. The Finland study also seems to echo what everyone in the carnival found: in the early years, it’s play that is important, not drills. In fact, one of the local criticisms of our chosen preschool is that it isn’t “academic” enough. That actually appealed to us; one of the Finnish educators in the Smithsonian article echoed our feelings: “We have no hurry. Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?” I agree. I didn’t read until well into 1st grade, and ended up in academia–in the humanities, no less.

  8. Well done, ScienceofMom!

    “looking at the data will give me some ideas about important considerations and average outcomes” About as good as it gets, I think. Reminds me that ‘social science’ is an apparent oxymoron term.

  9. This isn’t about the topic directly, but about the whole blog carnival plan – where are you announcing future blog carnivals? I’d love to keep an eye on what’s upcoming in case there are any I want to write about.

    • Hi Dr. Sarah! We would love to have you contribute future carnivals! I actually left a comment on your site to see if you were interested in this one – did you get it? Anyway, we don’t have a centralized site yet, and we haven’t figured out how we’ll handle submissions. We’re starting small, and we’ll see how it develops. Right now, we have a Google+ circle for those interested in contributing, as well as stupidly long email threads. If you’re on Google+, email me your profile and we can add you. I will include you in future emails as well. We’re looking at a “motherhood” theme for May. Not sure if we’ll refine it more. Some bloggers have talked about maternal mental health and happiness. You’re welcome to join in!

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  12. It’s too late for me to read through all of these tonight, but I’ve sent this to my Evernote for later perusal ;) I have about a year or so before preschool, but it is a recent topic of discussion for me. Looking forward to seeing what everyone has to say.

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