Workbooks and worksheets are showing up more and more in early childhood programs. Not just as additional or enrichment activities, but as an important instructional focus. Of course, the use of worksheets is not new. But what is disturbing is the amount of time children are now being asked to “learn” through pencil and paper tasks instead of hands-on, interactive activities. Kindergartners (and some preschoolers) are being asked to give up free playtime, art, music, and sometimes even recess in exchange for more “work” time.
There have always been workbooks or “dittos” in early childhood programs. Teachers have used them to reinforce or even “test” an understanding or skill children learned through hands-on experience. Unfortunately, sometimes they were used as “busy work”(instead of play). But even then they were rarely used as a major instructional tool. Many preschool and kindergarten programs are now opting for this type of didactic and rote learning in order to meet “the standards.”
We all know that children learn best through the investigation and manipulation of materials, problem solving, and exploration. These concrete experiences are the building blocks of thinking and understanding. Wondering what will happen when different objects are placed in water is very different from drawing circles on a workbook page around pictures of objects you think will sink. Children need to start with the concrete and then move to the abstract. Circling all the pictures on the page of things that start with the B sound is different from finding things in the room that start with the B sound, and then using them in a rendition of “I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a B.”
Research shows us that children learn from interacting with materials, concepts, problems, and of course, each other. It is with concrete experiences that children make sense of their world through observation, experimentation, analysis, application, and problem solving. Learning is not just a vertical process of building knowledge upon skills, but a finely balanced, interactive process, which also includes experiences with the arts, sciences, children’s interests, curiosities, and feelings.
The problem with worksheets is that they rarely ask a child to think creatively, or to use the higher order thinking skills of deduction, induction, application, analysis, and synthesis. (Remember “Bloom’s Taxonomy”?) These skills usually come from participating in more “real time” activities that are hands-on in nature and actively involve the whole child in learning.
If your program is asking you to use workbook pages to meet the standards, consider taking the learning “off the page.” Start with the concrete and revisit it often in many different real life ways. If the page is teaching the letter B, for example, take a walk around the building and then out in the neighborhood to find things that start with B. Remember, the more you take children “off the page,” the more they learn how to apply learning to the real world and to their lives. That is what learning is all about!