A study released by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) shows that the type of preschool a child attends at 4 years old, will affect how he or she learns at 7. The study, the largest of its type to date, followed 5,000 preschoolers in 1,800 schools across the world.

So what type of preschool is best? Larry Schweinhart, president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, and a researcher on the study says, “Early childhood educators contribute to children’s development when they emphasize child-initiated activities, limit the use of whole-group instruction, and provide abundant materials in the classroom.”

In other words, allowing preschoolers to choose freely, for as much of the day as possible, rather than corralling them into too much circle time, is the best way to create successful first graders. Over the past few years, U.S. preschools have been moving in the exact opposite direction – towards academic programs that incorporate pre-reading and math curriculum.

Whether or not this study reverses that trend, the researchers are clear on a number of points:

Language performance at age 7 improves when:

  1. Most of the activities available to preschoolers are free choice, rather than academic – dramatic play, physical activities that allow kids to practice their gross and fine motor skills, crafts, music.
  2. Their teachers have a higher level of education.

Thinking skills at age 7 improve when:

  1. Preschoolers spend less time in whole group activities proposed by the teacher, like songs, games, group story-time, and pre-academic activities.
  2. The number and variety of equipment and materials for preschoolers to choose from increases.

In a nutshell, children become better thinkers when they’re active participants in their own learning. The tricycle may not seem like an advanced learning tool, but it develops gross motor skills. Negotiating over toys helps kids practice communication. And deciding who will play which part in the pretend post office allows them to practice planning and negotiation. What they learn in the sandbox will affect them long after they’ve outgrown their pre-K clothing. And getting them ready for grade school may be more fun than we thought.