Can Learning As Play Make a Kindergarten Comeback ?

1(Urban Matters)  September 21, 2016

Can ‘Learning as Play’ Make a Kindergarten Comeback?

By Lydie Raschka

One day last school year, a girl in Fanny Roman’s kindergarten class at PS 244 in Flushing, Queens arrived bubbling with excitement about her new shoes. With Roman’s encouragement, she began tracing classmates’ feet on paper and constructing “shoes,” using pipe cleaners for laces. Her enthusiasm proved contagious; in response, Roman read poetry and picture books about shoes and students set up a play shoe store of their own, with different-sized shoes in boxes, labeled “Jellies” or “Sneakers”, as they categorized by size and even priced their wares. In their writing, they started using words such as “Velcro,” buckles” and “shoelaces.”

Welcome to “choice time.” In a number of New York City elementary school kindergarten classes, it revives, in modified fashion, the once-common play-as-learning “free time” that’s been driven almost to extinction in favor of whole-class instruction, textbooks, worksheets, and other elements of more rigorous education in the Common Core era.

Nationally, the amount of kindergarten time spent on reading and math instruction has substantially increased, according to a recent study published by AERA Open, titled, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” Authors Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem found that some 80% of a national sample of teachers now believe students should learn to read in kindergarten, compared to only 31% who thought that in 1998; only 40% reported at least an hour of student-driven activities per day in their classrooms.

While there’s no question that early education is critical, there’s also a growing number of researchers, educators, and parents questioning whether the formal academic approach now rooted in many kindergarten classrooms has gone too far.

Academic expectations and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, some early childhood experts say. Lilian G. Katz, author of Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children, argues that while “bits of information,” such as learning the sound of the letter “s,” do matter, they may not warrant as much time as schools increasingly give them. She and other prominent educators, including Deborah Meier and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, are part of a nonprofit group called “Defending the Early Years,” intended to help early childhood educators combat an increased focus on academics over the discovery, inquiry, and play that stimulates the mind in a fuller way and is often called “choice time.”

Another highly respected, now retired, elementary school teacher in New York City, Renée Dinnerstein, believes that a way to stimulate a rich choice time is to “make the classroom into a sort of laboratory for children – to create a science center where they really feel like scientists; an art center where they really feel like artists.”

“The challenge,” she says, “is to plan inquiry-based, explorative choice time, acknowledging important elements of free play within the high standards expected” in the Common Core-era classroom – even in kindergarten.

Dinnerstein expands on these ideas on her blog, Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration and Play, and in a new book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning through Inquiry and Play, Pre-K – 2 published by Heinemann Press. In recent years, she also has helped develop kindergarten choice time at various local schools.

“The teacher’s prepared environment is essentially what differentiates free play and choice time,” Dinnerstein says. That can mean, for example, creating a classroom “construction area” replete with kid-sized safety goggles, vests, blocks, hard hats, sign-making materials and mini-people or animals. Teachers introduce items of interest based on what kids say and do.

PS 244 principal Bob Groff says that for his students (drawn from a heavily Chinese immigrant neighborhood where some 70% start school with little or no English) “choice time is a great opportunity to develop language socially and academically at the same time.” It also encompasses reading, writing, and math learning goals. “This blends all of that together,” he said. “It’s natural, not forced. It’s going to have more long-lasting success.”

Kindergarten teacher Fanny Roman is a believer in choice time, too, and has put it at the start of the school day. “I liked it first thing,” she said. “It made me so excited every day to come in.” Nevertheless, choice time also takes time—time that isn’t easy to find. “Every minute counts,” said Roman. “It’s all about the testing grades and what we have to do to get them ready in kindergarten.”

Dinnerstein thinks those minutes could be used better—to create an intellectually stimulating kindergarten that promotes reasoning, analyzing, predicting, and questioning. “When kids are pushed to read early, they’re not pushed to do a lot of thinking,” she said. “It’s not like I’m against children learning to read. [But] I don’t think the goal is that every child leaving kindergarten has to learn to read. If you have two children in one family, they’re not learning everything at the same speed—crawling, pushing up, standing—but they all end up walking.”

Lydie Raschka is on the staff of the InsideSchools project of the Center for New York City Affairs. She’s a Montessori teacher-trainer during the summer months.
Photo Credit: Fanny Roman
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5 thoughts on “Can Learning As Play Make a Kindergarten Comeback ?

  1. Pat Pinciotti

    Renee – I cannot thank you enough for your thoughtful and provocative work! You and the opportunities you provide for children and teachers have inspired our work at East Stroudsburg University C.R.E.A.T.E. lab. http://quantum.esu.edu/createlab/ In January we partnered with one of our ESU Professional Development Schools to introduce a C.R.E.A.T.E. lab into K-5 choice times. The Kindergarten classes have used this space prolifically. Organized around a provocation, students make choices and teachers have the opportunity to really observe and document student learning. The conversations, explorations, and intellectual growth are documented within each visit to the C-lab and shared publicly in the school. Resica Elementary school began 22 years ago with an arts-integrated focus and continues to lean forward in providing high quality, integrated learning, now with choice time! Looking forward to seeing this transformation grow. Gratitude….pat

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  2. Lisanne Pinciotti

    So thrilled to read this article by Lydie, a Montessori colleague! Another colleague and I will be presenting at the 2017 American Montessori Society National Conference on this very topic. We are a Montessori teacher education program in NYC and look forward to connecting with you to share ideas. Investigating Choice is the foundation of the Prepared Environment and is the cornerstone of our work with young children. *Thanks to Pat for passing this along…

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