How Schools Can Make Room for Play

11/20/2009  |  JOAN ALMON and EDWARD MILLER
early childhood

Kindergarten has changed radically in recent years. Child-initiated play and hands-on learning are out; relentless literacy and math instruction and standardized tests are in.

One cause of these changes is pressure from middle-class parents who believe that the earlier their children learn to read the better they will do in school — even though no evidence supports this assumption.A second cause is concern about the so-called achievement gap between children from low-income families and their middle-class and affluent peers. Education policymakers assume that a heavily didactic, and even scripted approach focused on the basics of literacy and math is most effective, though we know of no evidence that bears this out.

Evidence from research commissioned by the Alliance for Childhood documents these changes and is reported in Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. Kindergarten teachers reported spending two to three hours per day on literacy, math and testing. Only 20 to 30 minutes were devoted to play or child-initiated activities.

The data on testing were the most surprising. Most teachers said they spent time every day testing children or preparing them for tests.

The growing use of standardized tests in kindergarten is a relatively new and destructive trend. Such testing of children under age eight is highly unreliable. Knowing this fact, the framers of the No Child Left Behind Act required testing only in the third and higher grades. But pressure to raise scores has pushed test prep down to kindergarten. Important decisions about young children are now often based on their test scores — decisions about holding them back in grade or placing them in special education or “gifted and tal-ented” programs.These decisions can carry lifelong consequences.

Assessments are a cation Sciences found that the program “did not have statistically significant impacts on student reading comprehension test scores in first through third grades.” The program actually reduced second-grade students’ engagement in reading and writing.

The curricula chosen for Reading First were supposedly “evidence-based,” but the Government Accountability Office found that favoritism and conflicts of interest corrupted the selection process, “especially among researchers who had developed reading-instruction products that would profit from the program’s bounty.”

The billions wasted on such efforts could have made a real difference for children from low-income backgrounds. Preschool and kindergarten programs focused on child-initiated play and playful learning have demonstrated long-term success.

When Germany changed its play-based kindergartens into centers for cognitive achievement in the 1970s, for example, researchers followed the outcomes of 50 play-based classes compared with those of 50 early-learning centers. By age 10, the children who had played excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression and “industry.” As a result of this study, German kindergartens returned to being play-based.

The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study had similarly dramatic findings. It followed 68 at-risk preschoolers through age 23.Those who had been exposed to a scripted academic curriculum required more treatment for emotional problems than those in play-based programs.At age 15, they reported more social difficulties with their families.They were less likely to complete high school and more likely to commit felonies. On 17 key variables they did less well than the comparable children who had attended play-based classes.

Why is play so effective in preschool and kindergarten? Young children are highly motivated to play. It is the primary way they come to know themselves and the world around them. Through play they learn fundamental lessons in language, math, science, and social studies that simultaneously heighten their creativity and spirit of exploration.

One study reviewed films of 90 preschool children at play.The children spent nearly half the time talking about math concepts such as bigger/ smaller or using numbers, although they were not asked to do so.Young children’s self-initiated play advances learning in multiple ways at the same time. It lays a solid foundation for the many subjects children will encounter separately in the later grades.

Play without adult support can grow chaotic.Therefore, the role of the teacher is critical. She needs to be aware of and support the children’s activities without dominating them. Her attentive presence makes a huge difference in the quality of children’s play.At the same time, well-prepared teachers enrich children’s experiences through carefully selected stories, books, songs and verses.They set developmentally appropriate goals for learning and find creative, playful ways to achieve them in the classroom.

A combination of child-initiated play and playful learning yields positive results for children of all socio-economic levels.The more extreme forms of kindergarten schooling — play that devolves into chaos or didactic instruction — lead to problems for children and teachers.

The loss of play in early education is creating serious problems, including soaring levels of retention in kindergartens, angry and aggressive behavior and inappropriate labeling of children. Walter Gilliam of Yale University found that preschoolers are being expelled at rates three times higher than the average for kindergarten through grade 12. Those expelled include 4.5 times more boys than girls. Gilliam found that the preschools with the highest amount of dramatic play had the lowest rates of expulsion.

Parents are now recognizing the problems facing their young children. Several new studies indicate a deep concern about children growing up too fast and the loss of childhood in general.When Peggy Orenstein wrote a column titled “Kindergarten Cram”in the May 3 issue of the New York Times Magazine, reporting on the Alliance’s Crisis in the Kindergarten, she was overwhelmed with e-mails from read-ers.They confirmed her contention that too much emphasis was placed on kindergartners’ academic achievement and that unrealistic expectations and too much testing were creating unhealthy levels of stress for children and families.

With the Elementary and Secondary Education Act coming up for reauthorization in 2010, it is time to reassess pre-K and kindergarten education in public schools.Young children are eager to learn — as long as we are willing to work with the grain and not against it.

The following four key steps can help educators create and promote an effective early childhood program rich in playful and experiential learning:

  • Educate parents and staff about the value of play
  • Provide ample time for child-initiated learning and physical activity.
  • Be scrupulous about appropriate use of tests.
  • Challenge policymakers to defend questionable practices with evidence.
Joan Almon is Executive Director of Alliance for Childhood. For more information visit www.alliance
Comments & Ratings

  5/13/2012 7:54:30 AM

When I was a special ed tceehar, I had a group of boys who all read on or below a 1st grade level. Considering they were all 14, this presented a LOT of problems! I didn't have the heart to do to them what had been done in years past give them a 1st grade reader and keep drilling them with dolch word flash cards and phonic pages. Their records indicated they'd done that for years. Instead I bought each of them a copy of the same book and I read to them. My rule was that I'd keep reading as long as I saw them following along. If they didn't, THEY'd have to read. No non-reading 14 year old wants to read aloud so the threat worked. We read good books too! I avoided all the textbooks with partial stories out of context. They were boring and non-productive. We read literature. At the end of the year all were reading at or above 4th grade level. Their self esteem was high and they were beginning to take pleasure in reading. Considering where we started, this was extraordinary. READ TO YOUR CHILD. Write notes to him/her. Help them write notes back. Make word cards and stick them around the house, words like DOOR, WINDOW, BEDROOM, STAIRS, TOOTHBRUSH. Make chore charts, calendars, bulletin boards, and art with words. BUT don't resort to only worksheets, flashcards and readers or you'll kill the love of reading. My oldest has severe dyslexia. He didn't learn to read until he was 11. Thanks to BASSMASTER magazine, he was reading on college level by age 12 and while he still has dyslexia he also has a degree from a college that gave him a huge scholarship ($80,000). My next two sons both learned to read fluently by the age of 3 and 4. My daughter isn't fluent yet due to some visual problems but she's getting there! Read fun stuff. Read exciting stuff. Find a bunch of Dorling Kindersly books and pour over them together. My third son is 15 and has read grad student level history books for years now. He loves to learn (and play ball and play music). I tried very