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Want an academically advanced preschooler? Forget hothousing. Play is still the most effective way to learn for the preschool crowd.

"My four year old is able to count to 1,000," a mother on a parenting forum I belong to recently reported, adding: "Is this highly unusual? What should I do now?" 

The implication was clear to the rest of us: this mother believed she had a "special snowflake" on her hands, was convinced that her child was "gifted", though she was quick to admit, after being asked questions, that they'd been working diligently, on a daily basis, to help her preschooler master the ability to count to 1,000. 

Not long before this, another mom was asking about early childhood education, specifically wondering how she could give her child a head start on becoming multilingual. While this mother initially did her best to avoid giving details on her child's age, it eventually emerged that she was, in fact, six months pregnant and indeed talking about teaching a fetus

A whole industry exists to appease the "needs" of parents like these; Baby Einstein is only the start. 

Alex Proud, writing in the British Daily Telegraph, said: 

"Your child is not a genius.

I’m not being mindlessly provocative here, I’m being honest. Depending on the definition of genius you use, the frequency of the ultra-clever in the general population ranges from about one in 750 to one in 10,000. I don’t know 750 or even 75 kids. So, even allowing for you being cleverer than normal, your child is almost certainly not a genius. In fact, even if you take the wishy-washy, special-snowflake, Andy-Warhol-was-a-genius definition of genius, I would still bet heavily against your child being a genius. And what is more, you shouldn’t want your child to be a genius."

I'm not getting into fixed vs growth mindsets today, into whether "gifted children" are born or made, or even into whether Proud is right about your child — who, perhaps, really is a genius. Rather, I'm here to argue against the idea that lots of "sit-down" work with a formal academic flavor equals lots of learning, in turn producing accelerated, ahead-of-their-peers, kids. Rather, such activities can lead to very premature academic burnout, which is a shame, because it's very possible to help your preschoolers learn more, in a different and often underestimated way: through play.

Play: The Most Powerful Educational Tool For Preschoolers?

People of any age most effortlessly absorb the skills and knowledge they're most interested in. No big mystery there.

For the preschool crowd, it is play that offers the easiest path to learning. Play isn't just a way for preschoolers to entertain themselves and keep out of their parents' way while they're busy doing the laundry — play is skill development on steroids!

Through play, preschoolers can and do:

  • Develop problem-solving skills. 
  • Develop social skills, either by acting out scenarios with figures or stuffed animals, or by interactively playing together with other children or parents. 
  • Develop their gross and fine motor skills. 
  • Advance their vocabularies and other language skills. 
  • Begin observing the world around them in a scientific way, by noting what happens when they drop a marble down a marble run course, what happens if they mix playdough with water, what happens if they decide to cut a doll's hair, and so on. 
  • Begin developing number sense and basic mathematical abilities. 
  • Develop memorization skills. 
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