Preschool a time for exploration and mastery

A new think tank report is recommending all children in Australia should have access to at least two years of high quality preschool rather than one, starting at the age of three.

Victoria University's Mitchell Institute says evidence shows two years has more impact ‘especially for children most likely to be developmentally vulnerable'.

The Australian Early Development Census measures children in their first full year of full-time school and rates them as developmentally 'on track', ‘at risk' or ‘vulnerable'. As Teacher reported earlier this year, latest data show 22 per cent were developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains.

The 157-page Mitchell Institute report released today is co-authored by Dr Stacey Fox and Myra Geddes. It includes evidence in relation to curriculum and pedagogy, and discusses elements of a quality preschool (known as kindergarten in some jurisdictions) program.

Play, exploration and mastery

‘Preschool programs are as much about helping children learn to get along with others, to be creative and collaborative problem solvers, and to understand and talk about their emotions as they are about supporting the foundations of literacy, numeracy and science,' the authors say.

‘Skilled educators use teaching strategies that are appropriate for the age of the child. They extend children's thinking, encourage them to ask questions, engage them in conversations about things that excite them, and integrate learning into play and exploration.'

The co-authors say research shows learning – including for social and emotional skills – is often sequential where foundational skills and knowledge are mastered before moving on, therefore it wouldn't be effective to just implement a preschool program for four-year-olds a year earlier. They note the curious nature of three-year-olds means hands-on, active learning approaches work best and we need to think about a child's learning as a continuum from ‘emerging' to ‘mastery', providing scaffolding along the way.

‘Three year olds are eager to try and master new skills, such as how to climb up the stairs of the slide, how to propel themselves on a swing, how to paint, draw, or to build with blocks. Mastery learning requires opportunities to practise things again and again, with the support and encouragement of others.

‘This suggests that constantly changing the experiences that are provided is not in children's best interests. Three year olds will want to revisit activities or experiences over and over and, while the adults may be “bored”, the children will find them interesting because they want to master the learning or skill that is involved.'

The report also includes advice on: group time (keeping large groups to a minimum as they can be overwhelming for three-year-olds); learning activities (offer fewer but more engaging experiences with open-ended or ‘rich' materials such as sand, water and dress-ups); outdoor play (offer consistent experiences on simple structures so they can achieve mastery; and how daily routines such as dressing and meal times can be powerful opportunities for learning about instructions, sequences and independence.

Commenting on more academic skills, Fox and Geddes say basic science concepts can be explored through play-based inquiry and the foundations for more formal literacy and language learning can be laid by adults immersing youngsters in meaningful conversations and taking the time to listen carefully and respond. ‘Educators may provide lots of opportunity for children to be exposed to written text but not necessarily encourage the physical act of writing as this would be dependent on children's fine motor skills and strength. These foundations would be built on in 4-year-old preschool.'

Taking a learner-centred approach

The report cites research suggesting effective early years pedagogy is developmentally appropriate, learner-centred, is built on quality interactions between children and adults (including scaffolding), and supports social, emotional and cognitive development.

It says a combination of ‘directional instruction' and play-based learning led by the child is important. ‘Intensive instructional approaches that do not provide space for play-based, inquiry focused and child-led learning … may produce short-term outcomes, but not long-term and sustained improvements … yet, preschool programs that are not intentional and clear about a learning program, and which do not devote adequate time to learning opportunities, do not have a significant impact on children's early learning and development.'

Evidence of impact

Making the case for an additional year of preschool, Fox and Geddes note that experiences in our first five years of life, in part due to the rate at which our brains grow, have lifelong impacts. They say preschool is a perfect opportunity for children to practice and master skills alongside educators who can stretch and extend them or provide scaffolding and support when needed.

‘Starting preschool at age three and attending for two years appears to have the greatest impact on child outcomes. For disadvantaged children in particular, one year of preschool does not appear to be adequate for closing achievement gaps that are already present at age four, although starting before age three does not appear to yield significant additional benefits for all children.'

They cite a 2014 UK study showing students who attended two to three years of preschool achieved higher overall exam scores, better grades in English and maths, and took more final year exams. In the New Jersey (US), the Abbott Pre-K program found ‘much higher impacts for children attending from three-years-old. And, according to international comparative tests (PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment, PIRLS – Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, and TIMMS – Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), ‘children with at least two years of preschool achieve much higher scores at age 15 than those who attend no preschool or only one year'.


Fox, S & Geddes, M. (2016). Preschool – Two Years are Better Than One: Developing a Preschool Program for Australian 3 Year Olds – Evidence, Policy and Implementation, Mitchell Institute Policy Paper No. 03/2016. Mitchell Institute, Melbourne.

The report says scaffolding is important in early years education. Are you using techniques such as modelling and questioning to scaffold learning opportunities for your students?

When young children are learning new skills, do you provide consistent opportunities for them to practise and master those skills before moving on to something more complex?

The full report is available for download from the Mitchell Institute website.