There's been a lot of talk about the need for developmentally appropriate practice and more talk about our youngest learners not meeting standards in the content areas. The problem then becomes that many people take the need to meet content standards to the level of pushing down academics into preschool learning environments. This then creates environments in which play (and therefore developmentally appropriate practice) gets lost in the effort to "prepare children for school".
What actually happens is the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than having little people who are socially prepared to interact with peers and teachers, think creatively, problem solve, express themselves, and enjoy learning, we end up with little people who are stressed, socially delayed, and do not love discovering. Yes, they may be able to recite information, but they aren't really prepared.
Instead, there needs to be a balance between what is expected in the content areas and what is appropriate for little people. This is where early childhood teacher (and administrator) preparation is necessary. The youngest learners need the best adults working with them as they learn about themselves and the world. More than that, teachers need to be observant of what is happening with their little people and be prepared to use the children's interests and skill level to create learning opportunities through play.
Here is an example. The young preschooler in my care is fascinated with cars and trucks and gets frustrated when his parents try to use flashcards with him. (I would too, flashcards are annoying.) Yesterday we drew a city on butcher paper for the cars to interact upon. At the corner of the paper I drew a parking lot by creating several rows and columns. I then challenged the little person to park the cars at clean up time, with the caveat that only one car could be in each parking spot to keep them safe. As he started to park the cars, he realized that he had more cars than parking spots. I reminded him of the challenge of one car per spot and so he used a crayon to draw the 2 extra parking spots that were needed before parking the final two cars. During this activity he was exploring the concept of one to one correspondence, problem solving, creative thinking, and was using his fine motor control. All this was done without interrupting his agenda and in a natural and playful way.
In the end, he will remember the concept of matching objects one to one in a more meaningful way than he will any of the things trying to be forced on him through direct instruction.