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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.


The balance is way off

Thanks for your thoughtful critique, Lisa. You're correct in saying that the original research in "Crisis in the Kindergarten" was limited in scope. But it's misleading to say that it was "conducted by researchers who were paid by the Alliance." The researchers were paid by their universities--U.C.L.A., Long Island University, and Sarah Lawrence College--and their independent work conformed to their own institutional controls and priorities.

Six of the nine studies on which the report is based were not funded by the Alliance. All of them offer strong evidence of the importance of child-initiated learning and play.

Your call for "balance" in kindergarten practice is exactly right. Right now the balance is way off. Many kindergarten teachers report having no playtime at all, while testing and test prep are daily activities. The Sarah Lawrence research team found that even the activities that teachers and principals call "play" often involve little or no creativity, choice, or imagination.

And you don't mention the evidence--mostly anecdotal at this point--that developmentally inappropriate practices and lack of playtime are contributing to increased kindergarten retention and expulsion and severe behavior problems.

I don't think "Crisis in the Kindergarten" relies on hyperbole. Neither do the eminent scholars who reviewed and helped edit it: Sam Meisels, Larry Schweinhart, Linda Darling-Hammond, David Elkind, Dorothy and Jerome Singer, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Sue Bredekamp, and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg among them. Indeed, Dr. Elkind called our research findings "heartbreaking."

Edward Miller
Alliance for Childhood
New York City

Crisis is the right word!

Lisa, you do make some good points regarding this research. I am, however, compelled to comment on a few things. Often, when I read editorials and other opinions related to education that were written by journalists and bloggers, I am usually very disappointed with what is being reported. Mainly because these people are NOT educators. They don't have a clear idea of what is happening in schools today, and spending a day here or there in a classroom, or interpreting research results without any real knowledge of education, in my view, doesn't make them qualified to write about the subject. These journalists haven't given their professional lives, time, education and training to this profession (and it is a profession) and rarely do they know how to accurately communicate to their readers the true educational story (and unfortunately, the readers often believe what is written). I have 25 years in the early childhood field with a Masters degree in ECE and a Bachelors in Elementary and Special Education. I can tell you that what is presented in the research is NOT hyperbole and it IS an accurate picture of what has happened to our Kindergartens over the past 20 years. As someone who works in a University-based laboratory early childhood setting as the curriculum coordinator, we are fortunate enough to be able to educate our students, meeting and exceeding our state standards (in a NAEYC accredited program) using a play-based, constructivist approach. My faculty can speak directly to the higher-order thinking skills and positive social abilities of our students because there is ample opportunity for child-initiated, teacher supported play. In our school, we mentor and train future educators who later graduate and move on to public school settings. They always come back and tell us how difficult it is to "teach the right way" when their schools and principals push standardized test prep down their throats. I truly wish that any journalist wanting to write about my profession would actually speak to real teachers!

Also, as an early childhood professional, you can't ask for a better group of eminent scholars than those listed as reviewers and editors of this research project. They ARE the experts in our field who should always be consulted when devising policy. You can also add Barbara Bowman (mother of Valerie Jarrett--senior advisor to President Obama) to that list, along with Lilian Katz, Sylvia Chard, Judy Harris-Helm, and Vivian Gussein-Paley.

To those at the Alliance for Childhood, I applaud your efforts and hope that you continue your crusade.

A few more words about the report's research and its funding

Let me add a few lines to clear up any misunderstanding about the funding of the research in this report. The Alliance's report relies on three studies of kindergarten classrooms in three cities. It also is supported by six other studies and analyses that have already been published in books or scientific journals. Those studies provide data on play and curriculum use in early childhood, but they were not written to explore exactly what happens and when during the day in a kindergarten classroom. The three kindergarten-classroom studies were conducted by researchers at Long Island University and New York University; at the University of California at Los Angeles; and at the Sarah Lawrence College Child Development Institute. The researchers responded to a request for proposals from the Alliance for Childhood and received grants from the Alliance for their work. As with most grants that are won by university researchers, the grants were distributed through the universities and were subject to the universities' rules related to human-subject research and data collection.