Five years ago, when the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood announced its campaign to restore imaginative, freely chosen play to children’s lives, at home and in school, we were told that “play” was a four-letter word. “Don’t use it,” said many of our friends. We thought about it, and said, “No. We’re going to change people’s minds.”
Despite its importance as the foundation for learning in early childhood, child-initiated play has practically disappeared from today’s public kindergartens, and it is rapidly disappearing from preschools as well. This trend began more than 20 years ago, but it has accelerated under the No Child Left Behind Act. The Alliance for Childhood will issue a report this fall with disturbing new data on what is actually happening in kindergartens and why change is urgently needed.
Public perceptions are at last starting to shift. Educators, health professionals, and parents are beginning to recognize that play is as vital to children’s health as eating and sleeping. Cut it off and children suffer from play deprivation, which affects all aspects of their development.
In recent months the importance of play has been addressed in The New York Times, on National Public Radio, and through other media. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a major clinical report in October 2006 asking pediatricians to talk with parents about the vital role of play. Environmental groups are focusing on children’s need to play outdoors and connect with nature, and a number of new studies and books make a strong case for play-based education in preschool and kindergarten.
In recent surveys of kindergarten teachers in New York and Los Angeles the majority reported spending two to three hours per day instructing children in literacy and numeracy and preparing them for standardized tests, but offering less than 30 minutes per day for play or other freely chosen activities.
Many urban school districts, such as Los Angeles, have chosen scripted curricula as the primary mode of instructing kindergarten children in literacy and math, so that teachers spend two or more hours per day reading from a script. Inspectors come into classrooms frequently, and teachers are reprimanded and even fired if they do not follow the script exactly.
The publishers of these scripted materials claim that these methods are research-based. In fact, there is little or no research showing long-term gains from scripted teaching or other intensively didactic programs in kindergarten. Yet these approaches were chosen for federal funding under the Reading First program. Recent government research, however, revealed that Reading First has had no effect on reading comprehension, despite large increases in the amount of time being spent in classrooms on literacy instruction.
Scripted teaching began in the 1960s but was largely discredited when the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation conducted a comparison study of three preschool classes for low-income at-risk children. Two emphasized experiential activity. The third was a scripted program. The children were followed until age 23, and it became clear that those who had been in the scripted program had suffered greatly. They showed more signs of behavioral and learning difficulties than the others, were more likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to go to prison. Scripted approaches fell into disfavor until the current Bush Administration began to promote them. In the famous footage of President Bush being told of the 9/11 attacks, the book he is reading to a group of children is part of a scripted program sold by McGraw-Hill. The Bush and McGraw families have been close friends for three generations.
Meanwhile, young children are showing increasing signs of stress and mental health problems. “Kindergarten rage” and other extreme behaviors have become alarmingly frequent. A Yale University study showed that the highest rate of school expulsion for children ages four to eighteen was among four-year-olds. Preschool boys were expelled at 4.5 times the rate of girls.
The kindergarten picture is growing clearer: First we create unrealistic standards and expect kindergarten children to perform at a first- or second-grade level. Then we frustrate them by demanding hours of concentrated work every day to meet these standards, expecting them to learn in ways for which they’re not developmentally ready. We test the children relentlessly to measure what they have learned, using standardized measures whose validity is highly suspect. We threaten teachers and principals with the loss of their jobs if the test scores don’t go up. Then we deprive these stressed-out five-year-olds of the most effective means of coping with their distress-time for free play. Finally, we penalize them for misbehaving and acting out their frustration and anger. Is it any wonder that, for many children, the first lesson they learn in school is that they are not good enough?
What’s the solution? Adopt realistic learning goals for emerging readers, such as those delineated by Bank Street College, and restore creative play and experiential learning to kindergartens. These methods, combined with the guidance of teachers educated in child development and early learning, provide a foundation for a lifelong love of learning and a capacity for creative thinking. That is what 21st-century children need.
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Article by Joan Almon, Educator and Advocate for Social Change