Kindergarten: What It Is, and What It Could Be

“The importance of play to young children’s healthy development and learning has been documented beyond question by research. Yet play is rapidly disappearing from kindergarten and early education as a whole. We believe that the stifling of play has dire consequences—not only for children but for the future of our nation. This report is meant to bring broad public attention to the crisis in our kindergartens and to spur collective action to reverse the damage now being done.”…

So begins one of the most compelling papers I’ve ever read, Crisis in the Kindergarten, by Edward Miller and Joan Almon, the summary of a HUGE study encompassing data from kindergarten classrooms in California and New York State and highlighting the problems we are now creating for our children by taking away their time to play.

Alliance for Childhood, the group that created and implemented the study, is full of incredibly well-respected early childhood professionals; their National Advisory Board reads like a Who’s Who of Required Reading for graduate students in early childhood education. We are talking people like David Elkind, Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University, Dorothy G Singer, Senior Research Scientist at Yale’s Child Study Center, Sue Bredekamp, currently the Directer of Research at the Council for Professional Recognition but whose name I remember from her work with The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the best and most rigorous certification that a preschool or childcare center can achieve…

These are the people who have dedicated their whole lives to figuring out what young children need to thrive, and believe me, they really know their schtuff!

The problems documented in this study, undertaken by researchers at UCLA in Los Angeles, and Long Island University and Sarah Lawrence College in New York City, are just breathtaking:

“On a typical day, kindergartners in Los Angeles and New York City spend four to six times as long being instructed and tested in literacy and math (two to three hours per day) as in free play or “choice time” (30 minutes or less).

Standardized testing and preparation for tests are now a daily activity in most of the kindergartens studied, despite the fact that most uses of such tests with children under age eight are of questionable validity and can lead to harmful labeling.

Classic play materials like blocks, sand and water tables, and props for dramatic play have largely disappeared from the 268 full-day kindergarten classrooms studied.

In many kindergarten classrooms there is no playtime at all. Teachers say the curriculum does not incorporate play, there isn’t time for it, and many school administrators don’t value it.”

– Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten summary, page 3

The paper goes on to discuss the dangers of this disappearance of play:

” while many politicians and policymakers are calling for even more tests, more accountability, and more hard-core academics in early childhood classrooms, the leaders of major business corporations are saying that creativity and play are the future of the U.S. economy. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, writes about the “imagination economy,” and says that “people have to be able to do something that can’t be outsourced, something that’s hard to automate and that delivers on the growing demand for nonmaterial things like stories and design. Typically these are things we associate with the right side of the brain, with artistic and empathetic and playful sorts of abilities.” How can we expect our children to thrive in the imagination economy of the future if we deny them opportunities for play and creativity in kindergarten?” (Crisis in the Kindergarten summary, page 4, bolding mine)

And, from page 2:

“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.”…

I thought it was interesting that they bring up Japan, because a friend recently passed on this TED talk to me: The Best Kindergarten You Have Ever Seen. The speaker, Takaharu Tezuka, is an architect who specializes in creating schools and hospitals that people love – talk about playful and experiential! The school that Tezuka highlights in his talk is built on two levels, and it’s round so that kids can run, often there is no separation between the interior of the classroom and the outdoor play space. Kids move, play, get their energy out, talk, laugh, help each other… They spend the bulk of their time at play!

Juxtaposed, the Crisis in the Kindergarten paper and Tezuka’s TED talk have really got me thinking about what is in this country – and what could be.

Here are three recommendations that the Alliance For Childhood shares (summary, page 7):

“Give teachers of young children first-rate preparation that emphasizes the full development of the child and the importance of play, nurtures children’s innate love of learning, and supports teachers’ own capacities for creativity, autonomy, and integrity. … Do not make important decisions about young children, their teachers, or their schools based solely or primarily on standardized test scores. …Address the obstacles to play, such as unsafe neighborhoods, overscheduling of children’s lives, excessive screen time, toys linked to entertainment media, and education that emphasizes skills, drills, and homework and undermines creativity, imagination, and overall well-being.”

Now, the first two of those – and I should say, there are many more recommendations, these are the three that spoke to me – the first two are more societal, the sorts of things that we talk about, but aren’t really sure how to implement. But how could we have an influence? Could we band together and insist that our schools of education “give teachers of young children first-rate preparation that emphasizes the full development of the child and the importance of play”? Could we elect school committee members based on their opinion about making or not making “important decisions about young children, their teachers, or their schools based solely or primarily on standardized test scores”? I bet we could…

The third one is really where the rubber meets the road, though. That’s the one that we could really have an influence on. As screens become evermore insidious in every aspect of our lives, it gets harder and harder to keep the kids off the screens. We start to worry we are not exposing our child to enough enrichment because all the other playgroup children take enrichment classes in everything from the violin to fencing (to quote speaker Thom Singer, “people have died from exposure!”)…

Let’s start small: what if today, I hide the tablets for a few hours? Or choose not to sign my son up for a second sport this season? What if we skip the toy store, and continue right on to the park?

I think that’s how we could fix things, if we each start by doing something small.