Preschool years call for balance, experts say; Mix of leisurely play, intellectual pursuits urged by principal


Brain research is supporting the belief of many early childhood educators that the preschool years can be key to a child's success in school.

A meeting last week of the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), held in Baltimore, featured a number of sessions on ways to enrich educational experiences for young children.

Ellen Cromwell, founder-principal of Georgetown Hill Early Childhood Center in Rockville, believes that a balance between intellectual stimulation and leisurely play is the best way to enhance a child's development. She calls her approach PLAN -- for Play, Learning, the Arts and Nurturing.

"Learning needs to be done in a pro-child way where they aren't over-academized, but at the same time aren't just playing with blocks or coloring all day," she said. "However, the teachers need to use their best judgment as to what they are teaching."

Cromwell's seminar was one of 275 sessions over the four-day conference. More than 20 countries were represented, from as far as Mongolia. The conference touched on problems facing educators, such as violence in schools, teaching standards and early childhood education.

"Accountability has become a big issue in schools today," said Shirley C. Raines, president of ACEI, a nonprofit, independent organization based in Olney that works as a children's advocate worldwide.

"Teachers today are giving more tests, and children are taking more tests than ever," she said. "Schools need to make sure that these standards tests are not running the curriculum."

Many in attendance saw the conference as a way to learn about problems teachers face around the world. Carol Pierson, dean of education at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y., said that despite differences in cultures, teachers face the same problems.

"Everywhere, teachers are judged on how much their students improve, but they just take different approaches," she said. "To put things in perspective, I talked to a teacher from Finland who said that they don't face the same pressures American teachers face with constant competency tests. They feel like they are allowed to teach without always being put under the gun."

Another theme through many sessions was how to get parents and the community more involved in education.

"Learning doesn't just include the four walls of the classroom," said Gerald C. Odland, executive director of ACEI. "Education begins before school and continues when the children get home."

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