One of the greatest challenges of early childhood education is not only making sure children learn their numbers and letters, but also preserving their inner love for learning – their motivation. Perhaps the biggest key to academic success, motivation is an essential aspect to cultivate in your preschooler. Academic-based preschools have been criticized for their diminished opportunities for children to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. But are they reducing their motivation to learn as well? We talked with Dr. Deborah Stipek, author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, and Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, to learn more.
The early years are crucial to nurturing the foundation for a child’s lifelong love of learning. Fortunately, motivation is not something you have to teach your child. “Kids are born with motivation,” Dr. Stipek says. “What we have to worry about is not taking that away from them.” If you’ve ever observed toddlers in action, you’ll notice that they love to interact with and manipulate toys and objects – while it may look like they’re just playing, Stipek says, it’s also how they learn.
Stipek and coauthor Dr. Kathy Seal advise parents to choose a preschool that embraces a play-based, child-centered (or child-led) approach – allowing the child to direct their own learning experience, rather than the educator telling them exactly what to do and how to do it, which can squash the child’s curiosity and motivation. In the classroom, students should have the options of choosing from a variety of activities and projects, with the educator guiding them by asking questions and pointing out details of interest.
Research confirms Stipek and Seal’s advice. After observing and assessing preschool children in formal and highly structured settings (with the teacher instructing the children exactly what to do) and in play-based settings (which used a child-centered approach), Stipek found that children in the first type of program exhibited lower levels of self-confidence, competence, and pride in accomplishments than those in play-based settings. Moreover, children in those classrooms expressed greater levels of anxiety about school.
Though a play-based program is less rigid than one that is academic-based, Stipek makes it clear that play-based does not mean lack of structure. “Some people endorse the approach of letting children do what they want to do all day long, and I don’t think that’s fair to the children because they can learn a lot of things with the involvement and guidance of the teacher,” she says. Parents should understand that a child-led approach simply means that the child guides their own learning, with the support of the instructor. A good teacher is active and involved with the students, asking questions, focusing their attention, and helping them understand and interpret what they see.
Preschools should also embrace the core elements of motivation: control, competence, and connectedness. A good educator gives the child control over their own learning by letting them choose what they wish to do and not constantly hovering over them while they do it (but being near enough to help the child if needed). Teachers and parents are often tempted to closely monitor children as they do their work or activity, and this can cause stress to the child and reduce their perception of control over their learning. By allowing them to work independently, the educator encourages child to take ownership of their own learning, which inclines them to perform better. Dr. Stipek writes, “Children enjoy academic work more when they feel they are doing it because they want to, not just because they have to.”
A good preschool also builds children’s feelings of competency by giving the child age-appropriate activities that are challenging yet manageable. A curriculum that is too difficult for a child deflates their confidence in their abilities, while a curriculum that is too easy will not adequately prepare your child to handle struggles later in their academic career. When your child feels capable of success, they are willing to tackle challenging problems with greater persistence, especially when they form deep and supportive relationships with their teachers and peers.
Children also thrive in learning environments when they have strong connections with their teachers and classmates. Parents should choose schools that foster close bonds between the teacher and the child, as well as with classmates — look for low student to teacher ratios, active educators, and abundant opportunities for your child to interact with other students.
Finding a preschool that cultivates your child’s motivation will take some time— we encourage parents to tour multiple schools, and even consider visiting a school more than once to really observe the dynamics between children and teachers— but once you do find one the benefits pay off immensely in the long term. Because what really prepares preschoolers for future success is not just academic knowledge, but a lifelong passion for learning that will lead them to enjoy their journey through the academic years and beyond.