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Fun and Play are Good for Kindergarten – What a Surprise

Literally constructing knowledge

Published in ChicagoNow, November 19, 2014

The headline in today’s Chicago Tribune reads “Fun plays a part in learning, study says” in the print edition and “Focus on play in kindergarten may improve grades” online. Who knew? Well, I did, along with pretty much anyone who has taught preschool or kindergarten. Dare I say, even first and second grade teachers know this in their hearts?

According to the article in the Tribune, the Tools of the Mind program and others that approach educating young learners in a similar way are not hard to implement. Teachers just need to “organize shared cooperative activities designed to promote social-emotional development and improve thinking skills. They combine reading, mathematics and science activities with child-directed activities and structured sociodramatic play.” If teachers of young learners don’t know how to do this, they can be taught with relative ease.

So now we have scientific proof that fun and play are far more effective than drilling little kids with letters, numbers, and miscellaneous facts. Even more exciting, the study finds that play-based learning with an emphasis on social-emotional skills (the so-called soft skills) is particularly effective for kids in high poverty schools.

Developmentally appropriate education is good for all young learners, regardless of socio-economic status, race, ability, home language, or family situation. According to the Tribune, “Kids in the Tools group showed improvements in reading, vocabulary and mathematics at the end of kindergarten that actually increased into the first grade…”

Why are so many education reformers opposed to learning through play for young children? Their attitude reminds me of climate change deniers. Although most of the country is in a deep freeze today, well before Thanksgiving, and although there are tons of studies to support the climate changes taking place, there are those who still see the world as flat. It’s not too different in education these days. There is a lot of research supporting the benefits of free play and yet the education-industrial complex would have us believe that kids should be sitting and passively receiving direct instruction from their teachers in reading and math as soon as they hit kindergarten. There are even some who believe this should start even sooner in early childhood programs.

The main stumbling block to implementing a play-based learning approach, according to Clancy Blair of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, who led the study, is “a misguided emphasis on academics and the belief that children need to sit at a desk and learn to read.”

Allyson P. Mackey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees. She believes the move away from learning through play is not motivated by what we know to be best practice based on scientific research of child development. Rather, it is motivated by the pressure to teach reading and math in kindergarten so kids can be ready for college and career.

The only jarring thing about the article was the linking of fun and play to good grades. It would have been better to link them to developmentally appropriate education for preschoolers, kindergarteners, and lower elementary grades. When we put more emphasis on how children learn best, grading them won’t be so important.


by Laurie Levy
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