Why a Puddle-Friendly Preschool Could Be the Key to Kids’ Success

A campus in Japan was constructed to allow kids to splish, splash, and jump through rainwater.

The preschool in Kumamoto City, designed by architectural firm Hibino Sekkei. (Photo: Courtesy Hibino Sekkei)

Jun 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

In the mid-1970s, my cousin and I attended a public preschool where, looking back, it seemed like all we did was play. Inside the classroom, there were bins full of wooden blocks and puzzles and games for matching shapes, colors, numbers, and letters. Then we’d head outside for luxuriously long, 30-minute sessions of hop-scotch and “chase” on the playground. It wasn’t unheard of for us to try to splish-splash our way through a puddle, watching the water ripple out from our feet as we pretended to escape from a fire-breathing dragon. But the voice of our teacher was loud and clear: Stay out of those puddles or else.

That’s not the case at a newly constructed preschool in Kumamoto City, Japan. The staff is going all-in with its emphasis on play, to the point that it asked for the school’s design to be puddle-friendly, according to the Japanese culture blog Spoon & Tamago.

To that end, Hibino Sekkei, the architecture firm that came up with the campus’ blueprint, incorporated an inner courtyard with a slight downward slope. As a result, when it rains, a gigantic pool of water collects in the rectangular space. Instead of shooing the three- to five-year-old students away from the puddle, the educators allow them to wade, jump, and splash. When it’s not raining, the space is nice and dry, enabling kids to play badminton or soccer or chase each other around.

It’s hard to imagine such a setup at a modern public preschool in the United States. Thanks to No Child Left Behind and the advent of the Common Core State Standards, politicians and policy makers in the U.S. increasingly push a primarily academic emphasis in early childhood education. The goal: setting up American kids to compete as adults with their global peers.

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By the mid-aughts, when my own sons were enrolled in a public pre-K program in Los Angeles, the focus on running, jumping, and building imaginary castles with a bucket full of blocks had given way to 10-minute recesses and getting prepared for the academic rigors of kindergarten. Like many modern kids, my boys learned to sit still on a classroom rug or at their desks as they practiced identifying and writing letters and numbers and naming shapes and colors.

Meanwhile, parents want a guarantee that their offspring will gain acceptance at the nation’s top colleges and universities, thus setting them up for a financially secure life. In 2011, one New York City mom sued her daughter’s $19,000-per-year preschool for not preparing the girl for Gotham’s tough private school entrance exam. The suit claimed, “The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom,” reported The New York Times. A judge dismissed the complaint.

So, Why Should You Care? A pair of studies published in the journal Cognition in 2011 found that an overemphasis on direct academic instruction makes young children less able to come up with creative, innovative solutions—the very traits many of the nation’s top CEOs say they value most. A 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics also found that because of concerns about safety and a greater emphasis on academics, preschool programs in the United States are limiting children’s opportunities to play. The researchers found that not allowing kids to leap, cartwheel, and splash through puddles hinders their development.

A happy medium is merging play with academics. After all, if kids can count the number of times they splash through a puddle, they’ll be having so much fun, they might forget they’re in school at all.