Keep the fun in kindergarten, expert says

By Molly Walsh, Burlington Free Press
May 11, 2012

Joan Almon has a message for parents who are scouting out a good kindergarten: Look for one with a bin of dress-up clothes, a stack of blocks and a daily schedule that allows for plenty of playtime, preferably in increments of at least 45 minutes.

A few decades ago, this sort of classroom would have been easy to find. Now it’s less common and that’s troubling, according to Almon, project director of the Maryland-based Alliance for Childhood and co-author of the report, “The Crisis in Early Education: A Research Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure.”

Almon believes play and its benefits are being squeezed out of early education to make way for an academic focus that is more appropriate for first- or second-graders than preschoolers and kindergartners.

The result: A lose-lose scenario of stressed-out children who don’t understand the academic programming that has replaced developmentally appropriate playtime, she said. Almon, who will speak at Champlain College in Burlington on Wednesday, outlines the benefits of playtime.

Through dramatic play, children acquire language. When they write storylines for their imaginary scenarios, they are learning to be creative. When they build a fort or a tower, they take the first steps toward physics, mechanics, math and problem solving. And when they talk freely in play to their peers about grandma’s funeral and dad’s operation, they are developing socially and emotionally.

Play is not idle time, said Almon, who was a Waldorf School teacher for almost 20 years. “You just see children making sense of their lives through play.”

If play is so valuable why is it going by the wayside? Several factors are at work, Almon said. One of them is competition.

“Fundamentally, I think it’s part of the American mindset that we always like our children to do things faster and better and be above average,” she said.

There’s more to it, though. Almon’s study of the topic leads her to believe that pre-schools and schools serving a high-poverty student population are leading the trend to reduce or eliminate play time. The intentions are good – to beef up academic programming for at risk children. But by pushing concepts before children are ready, it could sour them on learning and backfire, Almon said.

“You want to set the bar at a realistic level. You don’t want to not educate children, I’m not advocating for that. But you want to set the bar at a realistic level.”

Today many kindergartens have desks, white boards, computers and worksheets. Some schools push for kindergarten to go beyond the reading readiness stage and all the way to reading, at least by the end of the year. And in her report, Almon blames the new Common Core curriculum being phased in around the nation, including Vermont, for pushing kindergartners too hard to master skills intended to get them reading.

When Almon started teaching, that’s not how kindergarten looked. It was much more play-based and relaxed, she said. Early readers were encouraged. But it was understood that many perfectly normal 5-year-olds aren’t ready to read in kindergarten and will pick it up in first grade or second, she said. Nowadays parents are feeling the same anxiety that their children feel in some cases, she added.

“Parents no longer do know what’s normal because there’s been so much expectation around early mastery of things,” she said.

Good kindergarten and preschool programs should include academic content but leave plenty of time for play, recess and open-ended, hands-on activities, Almon said. Young children don’t need a lot of technology in the classroom either, in her view. “I think they need to touch life, three dimensional life with all their senses. That’s where real learning happens.”

And while the most dramatic changes are happening at the kindergarten level, the emphasis on academics is sifting down to preschools as well, Almon said.

“We hear from a lot of preschools who are extremely grateful that we’ve taken up this banner, because they are under a lot of pressure to get rid of play and they don’t want to get rid of it.”