In Search of More Play in Kindergarten – and More Solid Research on What’s Happening There
A child-advocacy group called the Alliance for Childhood recently released a white paper with a head-turning title: "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School." A press release accompanying the report carries the dramatic headline: "Kindergarten Playtime Disappears, Raising Alarm on Children's Learning and Health."
The report is right to raise the profile of playtime. We agree that it is time to talk seriously about how to ensure that early childhood teachers allow children some much-needed time for active, child-centered play. Through workshops and professional development programs, teachers should be trained in methods that give children space and time to launch themselves into pretend-play scenarios around, say, a make-believe hospital or space shuttle. Kindergarteners need time to figure out for themselves why a block tower won't stand up or whether their kite will fly.
But the report goes wrong in its reliance on hyperbole. It has chosen to start the sirens based on observations and interviews in just three cities, conducted by researchers who were paid by the Alliance. Until we have a large, national study using independent observers and employing sound, consistent methodologies for collecting information, using words like "crisis" only blurs the picture, making it hard to make helpful distinctions between classrooms that veer too far to "anything goes" chaos, those that rely too much on didactic "repeat after me" lessons and those where strong, innovative teachers have learned that playtime and learning go hand-in-hand.
The report's original research is based on three research studies. One is a survey of 142 kindergarten teachers in New York City who were asked to provide details about how classroom time was spent. Another is a similar survey of 112 kindergarten teachers in Los Angeles. And a third is from an observational study of 14 kindergarten classrooms in Westchester County, New York.
The New York City and Los Angeles surveys showed that teachers were spending two to three hours in "literacy, math and test prep" with 30 minutes or less for play or "choice time." The Westchester County research shows that children are so hardwired for play that they will try to find ways to do so, even when their routine doesn't allow for it. Taken together and without much context for why and how these classrooms are set up this way, it is hard to draw stark conclusions about exactly what this means for kindergarten more generally.
One section that is particularly useful, however, describes a "kindergarten continuum" of four types of classrooms: Laissez-faire, loosely structured classrooms; classrooms rich in child-initiated and child-directed play; playful classrooms with focused learning; and didactic, highly structured classrooms. The authors call on educators and policy makers to "develop as fully as possible" the middle two options. We see a lot of wisdom in that approach.
Other reports on the importance of play, some cited by the Alliance, make the case for why play is so critical. Writing in Scientific American two months ago, Melinda Wenner provides a well-written overview of the research that exists so far on what playtime does for children's language and social skills. Last year , science writer Robin Henig provided us with a similar romp through the research in her New York Times Magazine story, "Taking Play Seriously."
As last week's report itself states, we need more research on exactly how play is embraced, or not, in kindergarten classrooms. There is much more to unpack from the data it has collected (particularly in its discussion of standardized tests), and much more to learn generally about how to balance playtime in kindergarten with circle time, one-on-one conversation, inquiry-based science experiences, guided reading, the use of math "manipulatives" like beads and bears, as well as art and music. With innovative teachers, many of these components can be threaded into playtime or can lead to playful, child-directed activities. That is why high-quality professional development is crucial. New ideas for better integrating playtime into the classroom routine are needed. Early Ed Watch will be tracking the issue of playtime closely over the next several months to provide more insights from leading researchers in this field, helping educators and policymakers ensure that positive playtime is part of the picture.