In response to the pressure to raise scores on standardized tests in the lower grades, kindergartens and even preschools have started to focus more on academic skills. However, education experts think that asking if early learning should be play-based or academic is not the right question. It should be based on both.

According to Suzanne Bouffard, a developmental psychologist and author of The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children, "We need to get beyond this notion that young children are either playing or learning, because the truth is that they learn best through the process of playing." Yet, for many parents and - surprisingly - many teachers, academic subjects are still considered as direct instruction in numbers and letters, while play is considered as something "extra."

Some parents associate academics with "kids sitting at desks doing worksheets," says Deborah Stipek, a professor emerita and former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. "The notion of doing academics - math and literacy - is synonymous with worksheets, flash cards, and passive, teacher-directed, not-very-fun instruction." At the same time, some experts say that good preschool programs need a "playful learning" approach and recommend teaching early social-emotional and academic skills together through play and exploration.

In a whitepaper entitled "Learning through play: a review of the evidence," researcher Jennifer Zosh of Pennsylvania State University and her co-authors distinguish between "surface learning" - memorizing key facts and principles - and "deep learning" - applying and understanding knowledge through real-world experiences.

The problem is that often, even in early education, only "surface learning" is measured. "If you look at the preschool learning standards in most states, they focus on what you might call fairly superficial skills, like, 'can count to 20, knows at least 10 letters of the alphabet'," says Stipek. When only those basic skills are taken into consideration, kids may be deprived of developing the deeper cognitive concepts and skills, which they need so much for long-term school and career success.

Taking math as an example, Prof. Stipeck says, "I know kids who can count to 20, but if they have two cookies and you give them another one and you say how many do you have, they don't know what I'm talking about. They have learned the rote counting, but they don't have a basic concept of number."

Since for young kids the best way to learn is through play, both at home and at school, it may be an efficient method to allow them to do it "through interaction with peers, through manipulation of materials, through exploration of the outdoor space or indoor space," explains Iheoma Iruka, a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellow at the university's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. This sounds like wise advice.

Picture: The best preschool programs (Getty Images)