I can get so busy teaching, grand-parenting, and keeping up with the day to day demands in my own little world that I can miss important political events happening around me. My sister and I were out to lunch today and she was asking me what I thought about the latest decisions that Indiana lawmakers have made regarding the allocation of funds for virtual Pre-K. I honestly was thrown off because I didn’t know what she was talking about so I came home and checked it all out.

Here’s the Scoop

If I understand this correctly, in my home state of Indiana, the political decision-makers have decided to allocate $1 million dollars out of $4 million dollars in funding to a virtual prekindergarten program. They have come to the decision that virtual pre-k is the better alternative to early intervention and education than allocating the full $4 million dollars in funds to brick and mortar schools.

The thinking is that prekindergarten children (particularly from low-income families) who live in areas where quality preschools are not available will now have access to everything they need to be considered ‘ready for kindergarten.’ All that parents and children need to do (according to the virtual Pre-K software folks at UPSTART) is sit down in front of a computer software program for “15 minutes a day, five days a week” – and PRESTO – their child will be ready for kindergarten! But wait – the parent doesn’t have to assist much because the children can use the program “independently within 20 minutes of getting started.” Oh and the children who complete and graduate from Virtual Pre-K will not only be ready for kindergarten but they will “enter kindergarten at the level most of their peers finish kindergarten.” Sounds pretty convincing right? Ummmmmm no, no, no, no, no.

The Virtual Pre-K Focus

Whether a preschool child is learning at home or in a classroom setting, the needs are the same so don’t go off thinking that I am advocating for one over the other. What I am advocating for is meeting the needs of the whole child. Virtual Pre-K puts the focus of early learning on one thing – academic learning. It ignores the incredible and critical broad range of needs young children have to be truly ready to enter kindergarten.

Readiness goes beyond recognizing numbers, shapes, letters, and so on. Readiness goes beyond phonics and other reading preparedness skills. Readiness goes beyond pushing big, bright buttons on a computer screen. Readiness goes beyond the child’s ability to be independently captivated by “thousands of activities, beautiful art, lively characters and catchy songs.” Readiness goes beyond passing assessments solely focused on academic learning. And readiness should be a rich experience that goes beyond “hundreds of instructional hours, thousands of lessons and activities, hundreds of books and animated songs, as well as printable resources and ongoing progress reports.”

True and Complete readiness is an ongoing process that encompasses social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills through rich, hands-on, personal, real life experiences.

The whole child must be considered and not just the part!

Red Flags for Virtual Pre-K

Let’s take a look at the valuable and critical skills Virtual Pre-K does not include in the learning process.

  1. Virtual Pre-K is an isolating experience rather than being a give and take of conversation, questions, ideas, and interactions with other people (peer-to-peer or educator-to-child) in a real life setting. The critical need for social interaction and all the benefits of developing much needed social skills is missing from the experience.
  2. Virtual Pre-K does not promote the critical need for developing fine motor skills. Young children are still developing their fine motor skills which is a critical component in writing readiness. It is through hands-on play and sensory based experiences that young children strengthen their fine motor skills and master their eye-hand coordination.
  3. Virtual Pre-K does not promote the natural and important use of large motor skills such a running, jumping, marching, balance, stretching, body control, and spacial awareness. All are necessary components of functioning competently in a classroom environment filled with peers of the child’s own age.
  4. Virtual Pre-K does not promote daily life skills such as pouring a cup of juice, organizing papers and putting it away in a back pack, zipping up jackets without assistance, putting art papers in a drying rack, washing hands, throwing trash in the can, working cooperatively to put blocks away, or other daily life skills that are commonly needed to be ready to learn in a kindergarten setting.
  5. Virtual Pre-K does not give young children the important peer-to-peer experiences of making up rules for play, negotiation, problem-solving, self-regulating, sharing, and finding one’s confidence and skills in establishing and nurturing friendships. Perhaps there is an assumption that this will happen automatically.
  6. Virtual Pre-K does not nurture and highlight the child’s interest in creative thinking, engineering, construction, art, dance, story telling, journalling. Remember – the focus is on academic learning but young children have many gifts and talents that can can lead just as profoundly, if not more profoundly, to all kinds of academic/cognitive learning.
  7. Virtual Pre-K keeps all the “learning” indoors when some of the best learning a child can experience is outdoors.
  8. Virtual Pre-K doesn’t help a child constructively work through the things that frustrates him or makes him sad, mad, annoyed, or tired. The critical need for emotional development is missing from the experience.
  9. What if a child doesn’t pass an assessment? What if the child falls behind on the five days per week check-in? What if the child’s parents simply do not have the skills, finance, abilities to fill in the gaps that are missing from the Virtual Pre-K program? Who will observe the social, emotional, physical learning and development that is taking place when the “virtual teachers” never really ever even meet the child?

This list is by no means exhaustive of what is missing from Virtual Pre-K but it sheds light on the idea that as a stand-alone learning tool, Virtual Pre-K is not an all inclusive path that will help the whole child be “ready-for-kindergarten.”  Policy makers need to recognize that kindergarten readiness is so much more. I can possibly see Virtual Pre-K being an extension of a classroom environment but not the starting point. Unfortunately, it seems Indiana Policy Makers are funding Virtual Pre-K as the alternative to real-life, hands-on, child-centered learning that covers the full scope of kindergarten readiness and because of this, I worry that valuable and critical early learning opportunities will be lost along the way.

To the leaders right here in my home state of Indiana: I have been teaching prekindergarten age children long enough to speak from experience and if I thought that kindergarten readiness was as simple as a child sitting in front of a computer for 15 minutes a day, I would jump all over it but I can tell you – it isn’t enough. If I thought it was a good alternative, I would be the first in line to support it. But young children do not need the focus to be on academics over all the other kinds of learning. I would encourage you to continue your search and find a solution for Pre-K that considers and addresses the needs of the whole child so that young children will enter the kindergarten classroom confident, happy, creative, competent and fully ready to learn.

Deborah