If you think preschool is all about playing with dolls and blocks, think again. There's a growing trend toward more rigorous, scholarly preschools—and a new study supports the idea, finding that children who attended a year at an "academic-oriented" preschool were performing better academically by the end of kindergarten. Specifically, the study out of UC Berkeley found that children whose preschool experiences were more focused on academics were performing as if they had, on average, at least two and a half more months of learning in literacy and math than their peers by the end of their kindergarten year, the New York Times reports. The biggest gains were seen in black children from low-income families, who saw the equivalent of a four-month gain over children who stayed home through age 4, Medical XPress reports.
While many advocates for the importance of free play and socialization—not to mention parents—are concerned about the idea of preschools eschewing child-directed activities, the study found that children who attended preschools that were more focused on kindergarten readiness did not suffer socially or emotionally. And such preschools do still offer playtime: New York City's taxpayer-funded preschools, for example, must offer two hours a day of play. "If you can combine creative play with rich language, formal conversations, and math concepts, that's more likely to yield the cognitive gains we observed," lead author Bruce Fuller notes. The Times points out that the study did not follow children past kindergarten; other research has found that similar academic gains "fade out" over time, making it hard to close the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students. (Read more preschool stories.)