Is Play Still a Kindergarten Expectation?

Getting down to writing: A kindergartner opens his notebook

Ask any parent of a dinosaur lover who can identify an Apatosaurus atage 3 if learning occurs during play, and the answer is an obvious “yes.”

But with the added work on kindergartners comes less time for leisure, and one of the biggest differences in kindergartners’ school life is the decrease in free playtime.

According to the 2009 report “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School,” from the Alliance for Childhood, kindergarten children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. At a school studied in Los Angeles, kindergarten students spent 88.6 minutes on literacy instruction, 46.9 minutes on math instruction, 21 minutes on testing and test prep and 19.1 minutes on choice time.

Related Story: Way Beyond ABC’s: Kindergartners Master a Growing List of Academic Skills Byron Center’s Brown Elementary School kindergarten students are seated on a carpet in a big circle fronting a white board. They are making sense — “number sense” that is. Teacher Andrew Smith writes the number 912 on the board and asks students what they know about it. Their answers demonstrate math comprehension, or “number sense” in elementary lingo, which Smith has been working to instill…

“Kids do learn through play,” said Wyoming’s West Elementary School teacher Julie Merrill. “You can listen to their conversations. I love listening to them outside, the games they come up with, the rules. We have to really be cognizant of that social piece.”

A student draws himself at kindergarten orientation
A student draws himself at kindergarten orientation

While students are learning to read, write and do math at higher levels than ever, social connections are just as important, educators said.

“I work really hard to make a community of caring and friendly 5-year-olds. That used to be what kindergarten was. That used to be the total purpose,” Merrill said.

Grandville’s West Elementary teacher Stacy Byl gives her kindergartners time to explore without telling them what to do during a 20-minute chunk of unstructured play. Byl thinks it’s time well spent.

“I think it’s hugely important for them to build social skills and to work out what life looks like without someone structuring your every minute,” she said, noting that her students also have a 40-minute recess.

Karen Young, a kindergarten teacher since 2000 at McFall Elementary in the Thornapple Kellogg School District, agreed.

“They need to play,” Young said. “They need to learn to get along with each other. How do you learn about the world if you don’t play? Activities like painting and coloring give the brain a chance to be creative.”

At Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center, which houses grades kindergarten through second, teachers hosted a Day of Play last winter, during which students were allowed to have a free day of roaming the halls, sledding and playing in the snow outside without adult interference.

Godfrey-Lee Superintendent David Britten said he stresses the importance of play because kindergarten traditionally was designed for school readiness, not academic achievement.

“It was focused on developmentally appropriate play, the arts, physical activity, developing basic literacy through story time, and learning some of the rudimentary skills such as getting along with others, taking turns, picking things up, andusing scissors, crayons, paste and paints,” Britten said.

Wyoming’s West Elementary teacher Julie Merrill familiarizes new students with her classroom rules
Wyoming’s West Elementary teacher Julie Merrill familiarizes new students with her classroom rules

Much of that is now skipped, he said, without taking into account that children in kindergarten can be at very different levels developmentally. The difference in social development between a young 5 and an older 6-year-old in the same classroom is huge.

“Not all young brains are developed for retention of academic learning and so we start kindergartners right out comparing themselves to others and feeling like failures,” Britten said.

But play is a natural way for children to learn, and they do it in many ways, he said. They explore new ideas, gain empathy for playing with others, solve problems that come up during an activity without adult intervention, and learn about their role in a community by negotiating rules. Imagination and creativity are acted out.

“Many times, children will play around something they’ve learned or are learning thereby reinforcing what they learned. This tends to stay in their memory longer,” he said.

Kindergarten should focus on creating learning opportunities centered on what kids need to be successful in their futures, he added.

“Cramming content into them starting at 4 or 5 years old is nothing but a recipe for failure,” Britten said. “Many democratic-style schools allow free-play and multi-age learning, and those students tend to do just as well after high school as students from traditional schools.”

School News Network reporter Linda Odette contributed to this article.

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. Besides covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network, she writes freelance for the travel industry. Read Erin's full bio

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