Ask kindergartners what their favorite thing to do in school is, and they will inevitably say, “Play!” When I was a kindergarten teacher, about a decade ago, imaginative play, recess and exploration were at center stage in the daily activities. However, in today’s kindergarten classrooms, formal reading and mathematics instruction has crowded a typical school day, and very little play is part of the children’s daily activities. Far from being a “child’s garden,” as its name implies, kindergarten is even being dubbed the new first grade.
It saddens me to see what has become of these early-grade classrooms. As a professor of early-childhood education, I now teach future preschool and kindergarten teachers, and my visits to kindergarten classrooms in my local school districts and across the nation inform my teaching. But instead of echoing children’s laughter, these rooms are dead silent. Too often, I see two dozen 5-year-olds sitting like little executives, staring at a series of PowerPoint-like presentations on smart boards for large swaths of the day.
In kindergarten and even in preschool classrooms, there is a worrying lack of attention to — and time spent on — play, as districts instead mandate canned curricula, focus almost solely on tests and tie teachers’ evaluations to children’s performances on standardized assessments. With the exaggerated push for academic skill and drill, there’s no time left for storytelling, show and tell or even any spontaneous activity. Many schools have done away with the building-block areas and dress-up centers and even with recess altogether.
This push for academic preparation at the expense of play is meant to better prepare children to compete in the global economy. We have all heard the reasoning (PDF): Early reading skills could lead students to have a better shot at high academic accomplishment later, which could give them a better chance as adults to enjoy economic well-being. The emphasis here is on “could.” Moreover, the U.S. economy has changed dramatically in the past decade, making it impossible to predict what kind of economic future our children will face, regardless of their early reading achievement. And despite this extreme change, children themselves have not changed: They still need to play.
That play is a basic need for human development and intellectual growth is not new knowledge. As Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Educators and researchers have long pointed to play as essential for preparing children for adult life; it teaches fundamental social, emotional, physical and psychological skills. In fact, it has long been established that play is so important for learning, especially during the early years, that it should be prioritized over all other activities.
Play stimulates the development of abstract thought, such as the capacity to represent one thing in terms of another (for example, a broomstick for a horse). New knowledge, skills and actions often appear as children tell stories and pretend, projecting themselves beyond their actual circumstances. In play, children typically make meaning at levels beyond their actual capability. Consider, for instance, how even young children dress up and pretend to be adults — stretching themselves through their imaginations into the future.
Finland seems to have the importance of play figured out. In less than 10 years, the country has transformed a mediocre school system into one where children best the rest of the world in testing by the Program for International Student Assessment, which conducts global surveys of scholastic achievement every three years. Children don’t start school or begin to learn to read until they are 7 years old (which will seem too old to Americans). The Finnish attribute their kids’ academic success to big daily doses of play. They point specifically to the physical benefits of play. In a given school day, Finnish kids play for up to 3.5 hours, much of it free play outdoors, whatever the weather may be. Meanwhile, the average amount of daily recess in the United States — in a 7.5-hour day for kindergartners — is a paltry 27 minutes.
Here in the U.S., in order to increase academic achievement, we have instead poured an astronomical amount of money and effort into misguided educational initiatives such as the $700 million in Race to the Top funds, which are dedicated to ramping up academic standards, starting in kindergarten — and now possibly in prekindergarten. In addition, hasty implementation of the new Common Core national academic standards, which outline what students are supposed to know at each grade level, in many states are producing developmentally inappropriate curricula and poor educational outcomes. Nationwide, 5-year-olds pour over seat work and repeat lessons by rote. These disheartening images should force the question of where we imagine this kind of education will take our children in the future — and in fact it has. Families, teachers and legislators are pushing back in some states, such as New York, which is advancing legislation to halt the implementation of Common Core. Earlier this month, New York state Sen. Lee Zeldin stated his support for halting Common Core, referring to his own children: “I understand the need to prepare our kids for success, but not at the expense of a quality education. I don’t want to see my girls lose their love of learning at such a young age.”
In short, the country’s frenetic Race to the Top approach is killing everybody's desire to be in school (teachers included). The casualties are real. The lack of playtime and recess contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic and is even becoming an issue of social justice, as the gap between the play haves and have-nots continuously widens.
Schools in low-income areas have the least playtime. A November 2013 report published by the U.S. Play Coalition announced that a survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of 1,055 randomly selected elementary schools found disparities in the length of playtime. Length of free play was affected by school size, location, region, minority enrollment and socioeconomic status. Large urban schools with high poverty and high minority populations had the least amount of recess, and sometimes none at all. The overwhelming item on the agenda in many low-income-area schools is to keep students on task doing academic seat work and computer-based test preparation and practice in order to increase test scores rather than giving them time to stretch their legs and imaginations.
In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama rightly made a commitment to universal pre-kindergarten. He spoke of “a race to the top for our youngest children,” announcing his intent to forge a “coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.” This would be a laudable goal, but not if it means pre-K without play.
Americans may be swimming in anxiety about the economic future of this country, but let us be the adults in the room and not hold our 4- and 5-year-olds responsible for that. Let them develop, laugh, play and be physically active — and exercise their rights to be children.