By Debbie Morrow
“When are you going to give my kid worksheets to practice writing her name?”
This from a parent of a preschooler with special needs — a child who struggled with following the flow of the class, who struggled with participating with her peers at morning circle carpet without engaging in distracting and sometimes seriously anti-social behaviors, and who resisted teacher directions just about every time they were given.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of question. Or the thirtieth. My shoulders dropped and my heart hurt. When did we go from “Everything I need to Learn, I Learned in Kindergarten” to “Be Kindergarten Ready?”
Just because a four or five year old child can be taught to write their name with correct size and spacing, using correct letter formation, the product which, when hung on the refrigerator door or classroom wall does look really impressive, doesn’t necessarily mean they should.
There is a cost attached to increasing the curricular expectations of early childhood programs. With only so much time in a day, whatever time is dedicated to letter tracing worksheets and handwriting is ultimately subtracted from the time a child would spend doing inquiry based activities. When they are seated at a desk, forcing their little muscles to carefully trace each letter, following the directional arrows, they aren’t moving around the classroom, learning where their bodies are in space. They aren’t following the progress of a caterpillar across a leaf and wondering what will happen to that caterpillar when its eating is complete. And they aren’t learning to socialize with one another and develop the ability to engage appropriately with others.
If it’s not worksheets, drills, and learning to sit nicely at a desk to complete a task, what is the answer to getting a child ready for the rigors of elementary school? It’s so simple, it is often disbelieved. The answer is play.
There is well-grounded research to support play as pedagogy in early childhood education. Stuart Brown, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and clinical researcher explains in his book that it is through play that the brain forms connective pathways between the different areas of the brain, allowing for more complex thought. When pondering the question, “what difference does play make,” Brown answers himself stating that “play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”
In the National Association of the Education of Young Children publication of “Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children Birth Through Age 8,” Copple and Bredekamp (2009) outline four developmental domains that are impacted by play: physical development, cognitive development, language and literacy development, and social/emotional development.
With research pointing towards play as the answer, what is it that prevents educators from looking for play-based solutions to the idea of “kindergarten readiness?”
According to Nell, Drew, & Bush, a big barrier to play is an increased societal value placed on academics and a lack of understanding of how play benefits cognitive development. Dr. Stuart Brown (2009) states, “we are pushed from play, shamed into rejecting it by a culture that doesn’t understand the human need for it and doesn’t respect it” (p. 145). Johnson and Dinger (2012) build on this idea, stating that society has lost faith in play because play is too deceptively simple and something so simple can’t possibly be an effective teacher for young children. Another reason is that adults who were exposed to an education system in which information was delivered in a top-down fashion have a hard time comprehending how learning can occur without a teacher directing all of the learning. Perhaps the saddest reason outlined is that adults have forgotten how to play and how good it feels to play (Johnson & Dinger, 2012).
If we as educators know that play is the answer and know the barriers to play that exist in our educational system, how can we affect positive change? We can start by learning more about play as pedagogy and educating the parents and colleagues we come in contact with. We can dust off our soap-boxes, get up on them, and advocate for the benefits of play and inquiry based activities — to our parents, our administrators, even our legislators. Maybe they can join us in our classes to play and learn with us! We have a moral obligation to educate the various stakeholders that influence our practice. Our youngest, most vulnerable learners are counting on us.
Debbie Morrow is a public preschool teacher in Kailua, Hawaii. She has been an early childhood special educator for 13 years prior. She was recently named the Windward District Teacher of the Year.