The Problem With Worksheets: The Good, The Bad, and The Balanced

little kid writing on a worksheet

Alright, let’s talk about worksheets. They’ve been around forever in the world of education, serving as a “trusty” tool for teachers to hammer home concepts and get students to practice in a structured way.

However, there’s always that lingering debate: do worksheets actually help students learn, or do they put a damper on developmental growth?

Well, buckle up, because today we’re exploring the ins and outs of the pros and cons of worksheets. Here you’ll find insights to help educators, parents, and caregivers navigate the sea of educational resources, focusing on resources for preschoolers and kindergarteners. Let’s get into it!

What is a worksheet?

Ah, the humble worksheet – what exactly is it? When it refers to education, Merriam Webster defines a worksheet as, “a sheet of paper on which are printed exercises and problems to be solved by a student.”

So when I talk about worksheets in this post, I’m referring to the traditional, classic, paper-based, paper-and-pencil activities that kids complete in class or as homework.

How do children in early childhood (ages 2-7) learn best?

Before we get to the nitty gritty about worksheets, it’s beneficial to see how the world’s view of child development has progressed over time from the 1800s to now.

image of Friedrich Froebel

Friedrich Froebel, unknown date

Image of Jean Piaget in 1967

Jean Piaget, 1967-8

Back in 1836, Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany. He stated that “play is the principal means of learning in early childhood.” He was heavily influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich to believe that children are active learners.

Jump ahead 100 years to around 1936, and Jean Piaget made waves with his systematic study of children’s cognitive development. Based on his findings, he developed a theory that kids progress through four different stages of development.

For our purposes, the second stage known as the preoperational stage (ages 2-7) is what I’m focusing on in this post. During the preoperational stage, children utilize symbols to represent words, images, and ideas. This is why children at this stage often participate in pretend play.

image of John Dewey

John Dewey, unknown date

Image of Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky, 1934

His theory, along with the work of the psychologists John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky, paved the way for child-centered teaching methods that put children right at the heart of the learning process.

Have you heard the term “student-centered learning” or “personalized learning?” You can thank the collective work of John, Jean, and Lev for their influence and studies about how children learn.

In 1950, Carl Rogers further contributed to this approach by stating “the only learning which significantly influences behavior [and education] is self discovered.”

Sketch of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers, unknown date, ©Didius

Image of Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori, unknown date

While these four researchers were influencing the field of education, Maria Montessori’s work was also becoming more popular and widespread in the United States as early as 1911.

She was a firm believer in the idea that preschoolers learn best when they’re given the reins to explore and interact with activities on their own terms. She has famously stated that “Play is the work of the child.”

This hands-on, child-centered, learning through play approach has been around for over 150 years. So where do worksheets come into play?

By 1985, worksheets were already making their debut in primary schools. Teachers were using them to teach students early literacy skills, often having them churn out around 5-6 worksheets every single day. So they’ve been a staple for at least 40 years.

Bored kids at desks with worksheets

These 20th century worksheets were most likely the “drill and kill” worksheets that most educators agree are nonsense. These worksheets focus on rote memorization, which is basically like hitting the replay button in your brain over and over again. It leads to memorization, rather than understanding the concept at hand or its importance.

These worksheets are bad. They’re harmful, plain and simple. It’s time to turn these worksheets into something more useful, like recycling them into better resources.

But here’s the real question: Can a worksheet actually be any good? Can it really contribute to learning? Can kids genuinely benefit from worksheets? Well, in my professional opinion, the answer is a definite yes—they absolutely can.

Worksheets vs. Learning Through Play

If you type “Why are worksheets bad?” into Google, you’ll get millions of results that say things like, “worksheets focus on short-term success, “worksheets are problematic,” and, “it’s work without thinking and learning.”

kid with a thumbs down

Teachers who use worksheets are criticized for being lazy because worksheets are only good for remediation and for helping control over an overcrowded classroom, which in my opinion is more of a systemic issue rather than a teacher issue (but that’s a topic for another day).

While it’s true that there are always extremes and some teachers do tend to rely too heavily on worksheets—using them as the main mode of instruction or as a means to maintain control in a bustling classroom—it’s essential to focus on what truly counts: the purpose and design of the worksheet itself and how the worksheet is used by the teacher, parent, or caregiver.

Just like we’re finding out with technology inside and outside of the classroom, too much of a good thing can turn sour. Currently, many educators are expected to ride the paperless classroom train, pushing for more digitized learning experiences, as if a piece of paper is the villain of learning.

kids hands and tablets

But the truth is, just like with subpar worksheets, there are plenty of technology apps out there that miss the mark. And let’s not forget about the teachers who use technology merely to slap a game-like facade on learning, as if that’s the only way to capture kids’ attention.

Again, it’s all about the purpose, the design, and how someone actually uses a worksheet—or hey, even technology, for that matter—that really makes the difference. That’s why worksheets still hold their weight. But here’s the kicker: There’s a whole universe where worksheets and playful learning can come together in a seriously impactful way. And I’m here to spill the beans on how that works.

Worksheets as catapults

Picture this: instead of being just pieces of paper with boring exercises, worksheets become the launchpad for exciting learning adventures!

a wooden catapult

They’re like the fuel that propels students’ minds into action, launching them into a world of discovery and exploration.

With the right design and approach, worksheets can become powerful tools for igniting students’ imaginations and driving them toward academic success.

What is an effective worksheet?

Crafting an instructional worksheet is no simple task. You’ve got to think about everything from the amount of text to the clarity of directions, the purpose, blank space, font style, size, and images used. Each element plays a crucial role in creating an effective learning tool.

an example of a good worksheet using a free following directions dinosaur worksheet

Once you’ve nailed the design, it’s time to focus on the content. Choosing and creating developmentally appropriate activities, exercises, and tasks is key. After all, worksheets for preschoolers and kindergarteners should look worlds apart from those designed for 1st and 2nd graders. Matching the content to your audience’s age and abilities ensures that your worksheets hit the mark and truly resonate with your kids.

When it comes to worksheets for kids aged 2-7, the name of the game is hands-on engagement. These worksheets should be all about getting those little hands moving and those curious minds buzzing. Think dramatic play, open-ended activities, fine motor skill practice, games, and puzzles—anything that lets kids explore as they learn and play.

little kids velcroing turkey feathers on a busy book page

Hands-on worksheets, or what I like to call printables, which is what I create here at Smart Cookie Printables, are hands-on worksheets that are all about getting kids actively involved. Instead of just sitting there with a pencil in hand, kids participate in activities that engage their senses and spark their curiosity.

Furthermore, hands-on printables and activities help kids organize and process what they’re learning. With a structured format, they clarify concepts, reinforce learning, and develop vital skills like problem-solving and critical thinking.

I view our printables as fantastic additions to play-based learning!

A worksheet isn’t the teacher, you are

No matter how amazing or lackluster a worksheet may be, it can never take the place of a teacher’s guidance and support. The real magic happens in those interactions between kids and their teachers, parents, or caregivers.

adult and child hands outstretched and together

So the real game-changer here is the human element—how someone chooses to utilize a worksheet. It’s those decisions and interactions that truly shape a child’s education and development.

The execution of activities is just as important as the activity itself. They’re tools for teachers to guide and support students, helping them grasp concepts and apply them meaningfully. Ultimately, it’s the teacher’s expertise and hands-on approach that make printable worksheets truly effective.

Remember, if you’re actively involved in your child’s learning—whether you’re playing “restaurant” together or teaching them to count using fun activities and songs—you’re playing a vital role in their education.

A balanced approach with printables and learning through play

Teaching isn’t—and will never be—one-size-fits-all. However, when you mix printables with hands-on activities, you’ve got a winning combination!

a kid superhero with a red cape outdoors

A combination that allows you to customize a learning experience to fit the needs of your child or student; thus making education a truly personalized experience.

What makes our printables the best?

Our printables are all about creativity, purpose, and matching the right difficulty level for kids. With over a decade of experience creating instructional materials, I understand the importance of a well-designed worksheet in the learning process. And when it comes to quality, you can rest assured that our worksheets have been tried and tested by the toughest critics: kids themselves.

an image featuring our free catch the bug game printable

I design our worksheets to encourage kids to utilize various strategies as they interact with them and to enhance problem-solving skills.

I’m committed to ensuring that valuable resources are available to all children. That’s why I create high-quality printable materials that are free and easily accessible so that your little ones learn and grow.

A quick note on AI

All our printables are created without the use of AI. Why does this matter? Because they’re crafted from my extensive background in educational instruction and curriculum development.

a chalkboard with the words, "what you should know"

AI can’t replicate what I bring to the table: a research-backed approach, developmental appropriateness, measurable goals, and specialized formatting in resource creation.

Moreover, I’m committed to supporting the talented clip artists and font designers who bring my printable creations to life. Their authentic art, free from AI generation, holds great significance for me.

How do our printable activities support learning through play?

Our printables support learning through play by offering structured yet flexible activities that encourage exploration, creativity, and imagination. They include activities that help kids practice important skills like problem-solving and critical thinking in a fun and interactive way.

kid playing with sparkly playdough

By integrating learning objectives into playful activities, printables make learning enjoyable and meaningful while accommodating different interests and developmental levels.

Our printables offer a wide range of activities that support learning through play.

Below are some examples of the type of printables we offer to support this approach.

  • Q-tip painting
  • Drawing (directed and open-ended)
  • Solving puzzles
  • Playdough activities
  • Cutting and pasting activities
  • Tearing paper crafts
  • Movement activities like scavenger hunts
  • Emergent readers
  • Themed counting books
  • Various craft activities that help develop fine motor skills and creative expression
  • Matching activities
  • Puzzles
  • Patterns and shapes recognition
  • Sorting activities
  • plus many more!

Revisiting the worksheet conversation

To wrap things up, worksheets are not bad. Bad worksheets are bad. What makes a worksheet truly bad? It’s pretty straightforward: if it’s nothing but a chaotic, repetitive, meaningless mess with no educational value or purpose, then it’s better to leave it out of the mix.

an image with the words, "Worksheets are not bad. Bad worksheets are bad."

While it’s true that children learn through play, it’s important to recognize that activities with thoughtfully designed printable worksheets can also foster valuable learning experiences that incorporate and promote play.

If worksheets are developmentally appropriate, fun, interactive, and not misused as a form of punishment or consequence, then there is a lot of value to be found.

Understanding your child’s interests, needs, and abilities is crucial for selecting activities they’ll enjoy and benefit from.

Thankfully, Smart Cookie Printables offers activities that ignite your child’s passion for learning and foster their creativity—all without relying on screens.

Playing and learning with our high-quality printables

I hope this post has helped calm the storm a bit in the great worksheet debate!

Feel free to download and try out as many activities as you like on our website—it’s all there for you and your kiddos to enjoy! And don’t forget to bookmark our site for quick and easy access to our awesome printables whenever you need them.

Happy playing and learning!

Grab your next activity now!