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Crisis in the Kindergarten - Why Children Need to Play in School

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Published by the Alliance for Childhood

From the Preface

The argument of this report, that child-initiated play must be restored to kindergarten, will be dismissed and even ridiculed in some quarters. In spite of the fact that the vital importance of play in young children’s development has been shown in study after study, many people believe that play is a waste of time in school. School, they say, should be a place for learning. There’s plenty of time for play at home.

Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption—promoted by hundreds of “smart baby" products—that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school. And so kindergarten education has become heavily focused on teaching literacy and other academic skills, and preschool is rapidly following suit.

The common misconceptions about young children’s play fall apart when we look closely at what is really going on. We begin to be able to differentiate between superficial play and the complex make-believe play that can engage five-year-olds for an hour or more, fueled by their own original ideas and rich use of language. We start to distinguish between the sound of a chaotic classroom and the hum of energy when children are deeply absorbed in the flow of play.

Young children work hard at play. They invent scenes and stories, solve problems, and negotiate their way through social roadblocks. They know what they want to do and work diligently to do it. Because their motivation comes from within, they learn the powerful lesson of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion.

Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking. Animal research suggests that they have larger brains with more complex neurological structures than nonplayers.

Long-term research casts doubt on the assumption that starting earlier on the teaching of phonics and other discrete skills leads to better results. For example, most of the play-based kindergartens in Germany were changed into centers for cognitive achievement during a wave of educational “reform” in the 1970s. But research comparing 50 play-based classes with 50 early-learning centers found that by age ten the children who had played excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and “industry.”* As a result of this study German kindergartens returned to being play-based again.

These findings are summarized in “Curriculum Studies and the Traditions oflnquiry The Scientific Tradition” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Snyder, in the Handbook ofResearch on Curriculum (1992), editedby Philip W. Jackson; NewYork: MacMillan, pp. 41-78.

China and Japan are envied in the U.S.for their success in teaching science, math, and technology. But one rarely hears about their approach to schooling before second grade, which is playful and experiential rather than didactic. Finland’s children, too, go to playful kindergartens, and they enter first grade at age seven rather than six. They enjoy a lengthy, playful early childhood. Yet Finland consistently gets the highest scores on the respected international PISA exam for 15-year-olds.

It is true that poverty does not afflict Finland’s children as it does children in the U.S., and that children of poverty need special attention in preschool and kindergarten. But what they need is extra support to reap the full benefits of a play-based, experiential program. They may need more structure to begin with and guidance for entering into play, for many are inexperienced with it. They need a solid introduction to books, which most middle-class children have from infancy onwards, and they need to hear language used in conversation, storytelling, song, and verse. Equally important, they need to use language. Play is the foremost way that children use the language they are hearing.



In an effective play-based kindergarten the teacher has a strong though subtle role. She understands child development—cognitive, physical, and social-emotional. The teacher is attuned to the children’s play themes and builds on them, introducing new content and play materials to stimulate their minds. She knows the needs of individual children and helps them overcome obstacles in their lives that hinder learning. In other words, she is a well-trained professional who is part of a learning community where teachers support each other in their growth and where administrators appreciate her work. She expects much from her children and knows how to create a classroom that supports excellence.

All young children, not just those living in poverty, need this kind of support. For the fact is that most children today don’t have enough playtime even at home. Many affluent children now need help entering into creative play because of the surfeit of media and organized activities in their lives. They struggle to bring their own ideas to the fore. As one kindergarten teacher put it, “If I give the children time to play, they don’t know what to do. They have no ideas of their own.”

This is a tragedy, both for the children themselves and for our nation and world. No human being can achieve his full potential if his creativity is stunted in childhood. And no nation can thrive in the 21st century without a highly creative and innovative workforce. Nor will democracy survive without citizens who can form their own independent thoughts and act on them.

The power of play as the engine of learning in early childhood and as a vital force for young children’s physical, social, and emotional development is beyond question. Children in play-based kindergartens have a double advantage over those who are denied play: they end up equally good or better at reading and other intellectual skills, and they are more likely to become well-adjusted healthy people.

Every child deserves a chance to grow and learn in a play-based, experiential preschool and kindergarten.

Play works.


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