I still remember the first time a student refused to step into my classroom. Initially ecstatic to start school, Truman was now red in the face from crying while my teaching assistant and I practically pried him off his mother’s leg.
We were a few weeks into my first year teaching kindergarten and I had begun to think of my classroom as a warm and inviting space. The walls were painted sunshine yellow and covered with student artwork. I played smooth jazz in the background to help ease the kids into the day. Every morning I neatly placed a worksheet in front of each child’s chair, following the example of my colleagues. I never imagined those same worksheets would become what made Truman dread the classroom so much.
In an increasing number of schools, teachers of very young students are pressured to pack every moment of the day with structured, academically rigorous tasks
Truman’s mom shared how anxious he was even at home, having nightmares each night before school; in class he had become quiet and reserved, distancing himself from his peers. To Truman, the worksheets, which were meant to fill a bit of time in the morning, had become a form of timed testing, presenting him daily with a task he couldn’t complete. With his fine motor skills still developing, even holding a pencil was difficult for him, and he would anxiously watch his peers completing their worksheets well before our morning meeting. This anxiety would build and build each day to the point that he stopped wanting to come to school at all.
Something had to change—just not with him.
The New Kindergarten
In an increasing number of schools, teachers of very young students are pressured to pack every moment of the day with structured, academically rigorous tasks. One recent whitepaper linked the practice to preparing kids for the long road of schooling ahead, in which progress is measured through standardized testing starting in third grade.
Friedrich Froebel, a pedagogue of modern education, coined the term “kindergarten” in 1840 after recognizing the importance of play in the development of young children. Inspired by the idea of a garden, he designed a classroom where the teacher presented children with objects, which they were allowed to play with in any way they could imagine. When they lost interest in one object, they would be presented with a new one to spark curiosity and creativity. Children were encouraged to grow and flourish in this free form, play-based environment.
By contrast, most kindergarten classrooms today look very different. Across the country, kindergarteners are pressured to meet academic standards that both teachers and experts say many kids are developmentally not ready for. In an era defined by high stakes testing and rigorous state standards, children in kindergarten are held to such high standards that one academic paper called it “the new first grade.” Its findings indicated that both playtime and dedicated spaces for playing had significantly decreased between 1998 and 2010 as federal regulations put more emphasis on high stakes testing. The same analysis found kindergarten teachers were about 15 percent more likely to use math and reading workbooks at the end of the decade. All of these findings were often more pronounced at schools serving low-income and minority communities.
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At my school we are required to teach and test five sight words a week (along with an introduction to phonetic markings), greatly exceeding the 20 to 40 sight words recommended for the average kindergartener. At the same time, tools such as art centers, sand tables and dress up clothes, which encourage curiosity, critical thinking and social skills, get used less in order to emphasize academics. Even snacktime has disappeared in favor of extra reading practice.
Yet all this focus on academics may not matter much in the long run. Some studies suggest that exposing young students to rigorous academics early in life has little effect on later performance. In Tennessee, Vanderbilt University researchers found that academic gains made by students in the state’s scaled-up pre-K program had vanished by third grade. Worse, all this rigor may actually have negative impacts on students’ self-esteem and overall well being. Meanwhile, kindergarten teachers are feeling the strain, leading some quality teachers to launch protests or else change schools, retire early or quit altogether.
The Importance of Play
Play might not be a top priority for school administrations these days. But play within the classroom takes on many forms and should be valued. Free play is unstructured, spontaneous and filled with children tapping into their unencumbered imaginations. A bedsheet suddenly becomes a bridal veil or a stick becomes a magic wand. Guided play, on the other hand, takes place in a prepared environment purposefully set up with materials to stimulate and support children’s curiosity and creativity. As the students move about, teachers observe, record, confer, participate, push extension questions and use this information to plan next steps. Both are essential, and a wealth of quality research has found both free and guided play are critical for helping a child develop into a whole child.
Up to age eight, prioritizing time within the classroom to play with developmentally appropriate options has multiple benefits:
Children develop the ability to self-regulate their emotions and their responses to others. During unstructured play in my classroom, I witnessed one student go to our “dramatic play” corner, which was full of students. Instead of getting upset, she turned her attention to the tea set we had set up where kids brew their own herbal tea and sat with her friends for a few minutes. Afterward, she helped clean up the space and washed her cup before moving on to the next activity. Without time for this unstructured play, children lose important opportunities to develop critical motor skills, social skills and life skills like cleaning up after oneself.
Play provides an outlet to practice empathy. After one student worked tirelessly on a flower motif made out of shape blocks, he was devastated when a friend accidentally toppled it. Recognizing the hurt she caused just by looking at his face, she immediately responded with, “I’m sorry. Can I help you rebuild it?”
Play promotes the development of language. One year, I had a new student from Sweden who didn’t speak English. He was afraid to speak for three months, but opportunities to build with blocks and other forms of play became an unspoken, universal language between him and his classmates. One day, frustrated because his friends did not understand the vision he had for the block tower, he took a risk and began to explain out loud what he wanted. During our guided and free play time, I started giving him sticky notes to label the parts of structures.
Play provides a safe and nurturing environment to explore gender and gender expression. By giving students access to many types of dramatic play props, children have the freedom to explore and develop their own sense of gender and gender roles. At the kitchen center, one boy always took the role of a mother, carrying around our class stuffed animal mascot as his “baby.” Instead of chastising him for playing a role traditionally reserved for girls, his peers gathered some loose fabric and together made a dress and a baby carrier to add to his play.
An obsession with assessments, and the pressure for children to meet lofty academic requirements years before they’re ready, have all but eliminated playtime from our schools
Opening the Door
As a new teacher five years ago, Truman’s reactions to my classroom left a big impact. Researching the benefits of incorporating more play in the classroom helped me discover what I needed to change to make the classroom a safe space for him again. I scrapped the morning worksheets and began dedicating the first part of our day to unstructured play. All of the blocks, dinosaurs, paints, puppets and dominoes the class hadn’t had time to explore were now fair game. Within days, Truman was excited to come to school again; he was finally allowed space for the types of learning that might otherwise get left behind.
Choice time in my classroom affords children the opportunity to try out ideas, build strengths, seek answers, test predictions and navigate social interactions in both structured and unstructured ways. This time is fueled by imagination and creativity. Yet due to the pressure to keep a tightly managed, academically rigorous schedule, my door is always shut for fear that I will be told dedicated time for play simply isn’t a priority. On days when I know I will be observed, the magical momentum of playing, learning and interacting comes to a halt and I grab a pre-rehearsed lesson to demonstrate a specific academic purpose for every minute of the day. In truth, my evaluation score—and job security—depends on it.
As educators, we cannot allow this to continue. An obsession with assessments, and the pressure for children to meet lofty academic requirements years before they’re ready, have all but eliminated playtime from our schools. The opportunities to develop the social-emotional skills necessary to become compassionate, considerate and curious problem solvers are disappearing. However, play and academics are not mutually exclusive. They go hand-in-hand, multiplying opportunities for learning and childhood development. It’s time to open our classroom doors again and proudly display play as a crucial part of supporting the whole child. Our kids—and our teachers—will thank us for it.