Parents of preschoolers today are as focused as they've ever been on "academic preparedness" -- and not without reason. The current emphasis on standardized testing has forced kindergartens to attempt to teach material traditionally reserved for first grade ; and reports about dismal job prospects for all but the most highly educated in today's economy  feed parents' fears that their children will be doomed to a life of underemployment if they aren't at least reading and doing simple arithmetic by their fourth birthday. Even progressive friends of mine who believe that “kids should be allowed to be kids” have admitted to trying to coax their preschoolers to complete letter-tracing worksheets.
School Readiness Doesn't Mean ABCs and 123s
Unfortunately, this new focus on academic preparedness is as problematic as it is understandable. For one thing, academic preparedness tends to focus on literacy and math, the two curricular areas at the center of both the current standardized-testing climate and the new Common Core State Standards. And for many parents, the most obvious way to support literacy and math learning is to drill their children on the ABCs and 123s. But as teachers know, there's a world of difference between reciting the alphabet (or recognizing a few sight words) and being ready to read, or between counting to 10 (or reciting a few simple math facts) and being ready to add.
A more basic problem is that academic preparedness isn't sufficient for school readiness. A child who is academically prepared (in the sense of understanding relevant curricular concepts) but unable to interact with her peers or wait for his turn is not yet ready for school. Full school readiness includes social-emotional, physical, and many other sorts of skills; academic preparation is actually not usually a primary concern. A teacher friend once put it this way: "I can teach 'em the alphabet, no problem; but they need to be able to listen!"
Look for a Strong Foundation
So, what can teachers tell parents who want to know whether their kids are on track to succeed in school? One approach for parents who are fixated on "the basics" is to shift their attention toward more foundational skills: vocabulary, verbal fluency, and phonological awareness to support literacy; and counting principles, spatial reasoning, and part-whole thinking to support math. These foundational skills have all been found to predict long-term academic achievement better than mere memorization of the ABCs and 123s.
Emotional self-regulation is a cornerstone of social-emotional learning, which focuses on competencies that may not seem directly related to academics but that have been shown to support improved academic outcomes.
Of course, if parents only pay attention to these foundational literacy and math skills, they're still missing much of the picture. Consider, for example, two often neglected but profoundly important basic skills for school readiness: emotional self-regulation and attention control. Emotional self-regulation is a cornerstone of social-emotional learning, which focuses on competencies that may not seem directly related to academics but that have been shown to support improved academic outcomes; one meta-analysis covering more than 270,000 students linked instruction in social-emotional skills to an 11-percentile-point increase in standardized achievement outcomes .
Attention control can be considered a social-emotional skill, but it has also been studied for decades by cognitive scientists (who don't traditionally consider emotions in their work). Like social-emotional learning more broadly, attention control has been shown to predict academic achievement: One study found that pre-kindergarten levels of attention control predicted growth in literacy and math in kindergarten . And anecdotally, I have found that some academically minded parents who do not immediately appreciate the academic relevance of social-emotional learning do immediately appreciate that to succeed in school, their kids need to be able to concentrate on the task at hand.
Unstructured Play: A Comprehensive School-Readiness Assessment
So how can parents assess whether their children are developing appropriately with respect to skills like emotional self-regulation and attention control? Happily, there's a simple and natural way to tell. It turns out that to assess emotional self-regulation, attention control, creative problem-solving, and a whole host of other academically crucial skills, we need nothing more than the single most powerful adaptation for learning in the history of the world: unstructured play! The quality of a child’s unstructured play with their peers (not directed by grown-ups or bound by hard-and-fast rules of engagement) can tell us a lot about that child’s ability to resolve conflicts, control attention, manage his or her personal space, and respond to failure. And that information, in turn, can help parents support the child’s development in these key areas.
Specifically, unstructured play has been shown to "improve the key cognitive processes underlying strong academic achievement, directly boost brain growth, and even strengthen social skills (which turn out to be strong predictors of academic achievement in their own right -- schooling, after all, is a thoroughly social enterprise)."
If a child plays well with peers, explores materials and spaces, formulates goals or pretend scenarios, and adapts to changing circumstances, parents can rest easy that essential life skills are developing appropriately. But if not? For children without severe developmental differences, more unstructured playtime with peers (with appropriate parental support, of course) will usually go a long way toward resolving the problems. And if academically nervous parents want more reassurance that they’re preparing their children for scholastic success using the latest research-proven techniques, teachers can confidently sell them on the efficacy of unstructured play for supporting school achievement by appealing to decades of scientific research (and the endorsement of the American Academy of Pediatrics). Specifically, unstructured play has been shown to “improve the key cognitive processes underlying strong academic achievement, directly boost brain growth, and even strengthen social skills (which turn out to be strong predictors of academic achievement in their own right -- schooling, after all, is a thoroughly social enterprise).” 
Telling anxious parents that what their preschooler needs isn't a workbook or a tutor but more unstructured playtime with peers may sound cavalier, but it’s actually a simple acknowledgement of the fact that play is a sophisticated biological response to the complicated problem of how to prepare young creatures for the world. Mother Nature is very shrewd about expending energy: The fact that animals from polar bears to parrots and orangutans to octopuses play is a good sign that it’s time well spent.
Dylan Arena is co-founder and chief learning scientist for Kidaptive, creator of the interactive iPad series for preschoolers, Leo's Pad. Leo's Pad has been reviewed by Common Sense Education.
This post was originally published September 2, 2014.