Children at Play: Putting Play Back in Education

Mar 8, 2018

I go into hundreds of classrooms a year, and I find the kindergarten classrooms to be the most interesting. 

children at playAt one time, we thought kindergarten was going to be a great, developmentally appropriate idea for our youngest students. I was part of the planning committee who looked at what we wanted a kindergarten class to be in Michigan as we transitioned from a half-day to a full-day program. My daughter (now in 6th grade) was a part of the last half-day kindergarten program, and I remember all the early childhood experts I sat with in our meeting talking about how great it would be to give kids extra time to develop the skills that they need to be successful later on in school. We wanted special areas in the classrooms designed to help kids practice both gross and fine motor skills because we knew those are essential to brain growth and future academic performance. We wanted a time for interactive play, where kids would be developing early number sense and early literacy skills as they played. We came up with all these really great ideas for how kindergarten would transition from a half-day where there might be a few special classes but there wasn’t time to go deep in anything, to a full-day program where teachers would have twice as much time to really dive deep into the developmental areas. We really wanted this kindergarten year to be a year for kids to grow and develop. In Michigan, kindergarten isn’t required. Preschool isn’t required either, and it is cost-prohibitive for most families. So, for many kids, their first entry into school is kindergarten.

board gameWhen you consider the home life of many of today’s kids, the amount of time they spend on electronics and the lack of physical manipulatives such as blocks and arts and crafts, kids really need kindergarten to help them learn motor skills and early literacy and number sense. Today’s parents say things like, “we don’t do glitter at our house because it’s just too messy,” or “we’re not doing play dough because I don’t want that in my carpet,” or “I’m not letting my 3-year-old use scissors.” We have kids that have not played a game like Candy Land, that don’t know that when you roll a die and start to move your game piece you don’t count the space you’re on, you start counting with the next space. We have kindergarten students coming in holding scissors like they’re hedgers because they’ve never been given the opportunity to explore this tool.  All these activities do require parent supervision, and today’s parents just don’t seem to be placing priority on those kinds of activities.

All Work and No Play

Unfortunately, as many of us know, full-day kindergarten did not emerge as the haven of developmentally appropriate learning that we had hoped for. The exact opposite of what we had hoped was happening in classrooms across the state. The academic demands on young children became higher, expectations of performance in kindergarten were raised, and developmentally appropriate things like a kitchen in the classroom, or a play house, or perhaps a puppet show were ignored.

When you think about a group of kids with very minimal amounts of experience “playing” that are going into a classroom where all of these things have been removed, as is the case in many classrooms in the US, we are in trouble. I think that this is an epidemic in our educational system. We are creating at-risk children because we don’t allow them to experience the appropriate developmental stages as they’re supposed to.

Instead, we ramp up what they’re supposed to do in kindergarten. Instead of, at one time, just needing to know 30 personal, meaningful words, I’ve been in schools where they expect their kindergarteners to know 160 sight words by the end of the year. That is completely inappropriate when you look at the development of a child’s literacy! Visual memory for sight words is a much higher level of skill on the reading scale. A child needs to first have thousands and thousands of oral language experiences and build prior knowledge before they start to develop phonemic awareness. Then, they start to understand graphemes, letter/sound association, and cvc words, and only then can they start to develop the idea of sight words.

We look at all the pieces of this puzzle together, it’s no wonder that our children are struggling, They don’t even have a chance if they start like this at the beginning of their educational career.

Play is the number one thing that is most needed, both in homes and in classrooms, and it is more important now than any other time in education, in my opinion.

Prioritizing Play

One of my schools in Standish-Sterling is bucking the trend of removing play from their classrooms and their kindergarten building at Sterling Elementary is a developmentally appropriate, early childhood oasis. Since there are so many demands put on what kindergarten should look like, they don’t necessarily have room in their classrooms for the kitchens and play houses. Instead, they took all their kitchens and put them together in a giant room that they call it their Art/Play Area, and each classroom spends time in this room on a regular basis. There is nothing more heart-warming than seeing kindergarteners playing in a playhouse or a kitchen, or pretending to be a waitress serving food, or putting on a puppet show, or building an elaborate train set, or building a city out of blocks, or creating a masterpiece in the art center. They have 20 minute blocks where kids are free to choose where they want to go and what they want to do, and they just play.

Play is one of the main components of how children learn. It develops their oral language experience, both receptive and expressive, and it’s something they can relate to. It’s HUGE in the area of math because we know that the first layer of math development starts at the idea of play. If I have four people sitting in the cafe at our round table, I’m going to put four plates out, one for every person, and I’ll need four cups and four forks, and so on, and they begin to understand the idea of number sense and patterns.

One of the things we really encourage in our Molding Math Mindsets Initiative with our schools is a tool exploration station where kids can just play. If anyone were to question which “I can” statement this station is related to, it’s really related to the 8 Math Practices and all the developmental pieces in the area of math. If kids can’t experience holding and playing with the tools and can’t conceptualize their own ideas for how they think about things, we’re actually preventing their brain from developing!

Research has shown us that play is an essential piece in a child’s development. If we ignore this fact and fail to nurture their discovery and exploration, that’s when problems occur. In education, we try to compact all the layers of development on top of a child knowing that they don’t have time to develop each as they should, but pushing them to memorize procedures for concepts they don’t really understand. We try to push them into higher levels of reading and wonder why they aren’t advancing.

Playing at Home

Ultimately, we have to bring play back into our homes! Parents also need to understand that play is important. In fact, a colleague of mine, Bob Sornson at the Early Learning Foundation, often says that every minute of screen time should be followed up with at least a minute of free play. Parents are usually shocked by this, but it helps them realize that plugging a child into a device all day is not going to help them to experience the things we’re talking about that will help them succeed in school. A child needs thousands and thousands of experiences in the real world prior to coming into a classroom. That usually isn’t the case for our upcoming generation because the reality is that they are usually plugged in. We want to have blocks and Lincoln Logs in our houses, we want to have an area where kids can play with glitter and playdough (use a tablecloth to designate an area for these things!). It’s not just the school system, it’s the parents of the 21st century child that feels entitled to their device. You can go into any restaurant and see a child on a device. A kid can’t make it through the grocery store without being plugged in. How many experiences are we robbing our next generation of? Experiences like picking up a certain number of apples, or talking about what you’re doing as you’re selecting the cereal, or just talking with your child about the things you see on the shelves. Devices have become a babysitter!

Resources for Parents

four resourcesThese four great documents (from Wayne RESA) are wonderful parent education resources and tools to inspire parents to interact with their young children and support early learning in playful ways! They are full of practical ways to help parents find opportunities around the house for hands-on learning experiences in one of the four core subject areas.

I really do think this is an epidemic in the United States, and it’s one that we have developed. We have mandated all-day kindergarten programs, but yet we forgot to include the most important element and make sure it is developmentally appropriate for kids.  Even preschools experience this with the demands for “kindergarten readiness.” So I think that we need to band together with what we know is best for kids. It excites me when we realize that our kindergarten and early childhood teachers do know best. They are early childhood experts who, often, have worked with our littlest students for many years. They know the best way to work with kids. I hear from a lot of teachers that there “isn’t time,” but I wish we could make time. Even just 20 minutes in an open play area where kids don’t have to be doing a certain worksheet or accomplishing a specific objective. If we really start to observe the kids, this is an area of huge need in our country. Other countries don’t have as many standards as we do in the US, especially in a kindergarten classroom. Until we start to understand the importance of early childhood, we’ll never get ahead. Our snowball of at-risk kids that we are producing is going to continue to get bigger.


We want to hear from you! How have you brought play back into your early childhood classroom?

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