Kindergartens That Prize Play and Academics–In That Order

“Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” asked a group of researchers who looked at U.S. kindergartens in 1998 and then again in 2010. Their answer, based on surveys and direct observation is “yes.” The struggle over play vs. academics that has consumed early childhood educators for the past two decades shows that the academic-driven kindergarten has  triumphed in the U.S. especially after No Child Left Behind (2001) and now implementing Common Core standards (2010). Applied to kindergarten, there are now literacy targets and tests that  five year-olds are supposed to meet and take during the school year.

There are, however, many other kindergartens that prize  the play and discovery approach to early learning that also includes reading and math. Here is one instance of such a kindergarten described by a veteran teacher. I have changed names and places to protect the school and individuals.

Approaching the school’s playground that morning, I watched as an army of 5- and 6-year-old boys patrolled a zigzagging stream behind … preschool in the city of  ____, unfazed by the warm August drizzle. When I clumsily unhinged the steel gate to the school’s playground, the young children didn’t even lift their eyes from the ground; they  just kept dragging and pushing their tiny shovels through the mud.

At 9:30 a.m., the boys were called to line up for a daily activity called Morning Circle. (The girls were already inside—having chosen to play board games indoors.) They trudged across the yard in their rubber boots, pleading with their teachers to play longer—even though they had already been outside for an hour. As they stood in file, I asked them to describe what they’d been doing on the playground.

“Making dams,” sang a chorus of three boys.

“Nothing else?” one of their teachers prodded.

“Nothing else,” they confirmed.

“[Children] learn so well through play,” Anna , one of the preschool’s “kindergarten” teachers, who’s in her seventh year in the classroom, told me. “They don’t even realize that they are learning because they’re so interested [in what they’re doing].”

When children play,[she] continued, they’re developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills. A recent research summary “The Power of Play” supports her findings: “In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn,” the researcher concluded.

[Anna’s] colleagues all seemed to share her enthusiasm for play-based learning, as did the school’s director, [Maryn] : “It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still.’” The school’s kindergarten educators have their students engage in desk work—like handwriting—just one day a week. [Renny] who directs several preschools … assured me that kindergartners throughout Finland—like the ones at [this] preschool—are rarely sitting down to complete traditional paper-and-pencil exercises.

And there’s no such thing as a typical day of kindergarten at the preschool, the teachers said. Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.Once, Morning Circle—a communal  time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop. “I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) [$10 bill] to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.With a determined expression reminiscent of the boys in the mud with their shovels, the young cashier stared at the price list. After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and $10. Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.Throughout the morning I noticed that the kindergartners played in two different ways: One was spontaneous and free form (like the boys building dams), while the other was more guided and pedagogical (like the girls selling ice cream)….“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” [the director of early childhood education] told me. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about [early childhood education]…. But [the Director], detecting my surprise, reiterated that the … early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. “There’s an old … saying,” [she] said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”

* * *

After two hours of visiting … I still hadn’t seen children reading. I was, however, hearing a lot of pre-literacy instruction sprinkled throughout the morning—clapping out syllables and rhyming in Morning Circle, for example. I recalled learning in my master’s degree courses in education that building phonemic awareness—an ability to recognize sounds without involving written language—was viewed as the groundwork of literacy development. Just before lunch, a kindergarten teacher took out a basket brimming with children’s books. But for these 5- and 6-year-olds, “reading” looked just like how my two toddlers approach their books: The kindergartners, sitting in different corners of the room, flipped through pages, savoring the pictures but, for the most part, not actually deciphering the words. [The teacher] told me that just one of the 15 students in her class can currently read syllable by syllable. Many of them, she added, will read by the end of the year. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it. If the child is willing and interested, we will help the child….”
If you have reached the end of this post, I want you to know that the kindergarten described here was not in the U.S. but in Finland, one of the highest ranked nations in the world  in academic achievement as measured by the PISA test taken by 15-year old Finnish students. The article can be found here.


Filed under how teachers teach

4 responses to “Kindergartens That Prize Play and Academics–In That Order

  1. JoeN

    Worth perhaps adding to anyone unfamiliar with Scandanavian schooling, that many such schools have special heating units where children’s coats and boots can dry off after they’ve been out in the snow, because so much emphasis is placed on them not just playing…but playing out of doors, even in the heart of winter.

    The thing that struck me reading this, actually wasn’t the emphasis on play or even “joy” but the knowledge that many of these children will have brought those expectations to school with them, from their family life.

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