If you’re the parent of a kindergarten-age child, you likely worry about exposing your kid to letters and words, reading aloud, and practicing to count, but have you considered how much time your child spends playing?
When I was 5, I encountered the alphabet in kindergarten — literally. Every week, a new blow-up letter person appeared in our classroom, and the class would gather around the rug with our teacher to meet him or her. It was fun. We heard stories too, but we also had an elaborate snack time routine, took a nap, had playtime in the classroom, as well as recess outside, and did plenty of arts and crafts projects. And school only lasted for half the day. I spent my afternoons at home with my mom, engaged in — you guessed it — play.
I’ve heard other parents tell me, “Well, it’s not like it used to be. We can’t afford to let our kids have childhoods the way we did.” To which I say, why not? It’s important that our children have time and space to play, even in school.
NPR’s Morning Edition recently reported on new studies which indicate that, when it comes to young children, engaging in unstructured play with other kids may be better for your child’s development than any academic task. Play helps kids learn how to regulate emotions, solve problems, and make plans. A better predictor of a kid’s academic success in the 8th grade is how well they socialize with their peers in the 3rd grade. Playtime isn’t wasted time, if you’re concerned with academics; in fact it’s just the opposite. Playtime is essential for young children, though you won’t likely see this reflected in your kids’ school.
Kindergartens, and even preschool classes within the public school system, operate under orders to focus on academic skills that can be measured by assessments. These demands began with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and were strengthened with President Obama’s Common Core Standards Initiative, both of which focus on accountability and reading and math knowledge. A report in January from the University of Virginia found that these programs have radically changed kindergarten classrooms over the past decade, making “kindergarten the new first grade.”
The majority of kindergarten teachers now believe that children should know how to read by the time they leave kindergarten. Between 1998 and 2006, instructional time spent on literacy had risen 25 percent, at the expense of non-core subjects like art, science, social studies, as well as socializing and playtime. The time devoted to literacy learning came out to equal the amount of time spent on all other activities. Worksheets, homework, and even practice standardized tests are common in kindergarten classrooms — a quarter of kindergarten teachers said they administer a practice standardized test once a month.
A recent edition of the Growing Child Newsletter laid the blame on legislatures who created laws based on a worry that American children are not keeping pace with kids in other countries, and not on solid research and social science (or common sense). Studies show that kids between the ages of 4 and 6 learn at different rates, so it’s impossible to standardize their academic performance. And despite worries of children growing up faster, kids have been hitting general developmental milestones at the same rate for the past 100 years with no observable change. No, kids aren’t growing up faster on their own; they’re growing up faster because adults are demanding more mature, adult-like behavior from them. This says more about our anxieties than it does about the state of our children.
All of this points to the necessity of bringing the kindergarten classroom back to what you and I likely experienced growing up, a place of playing, singing, stories, and naps. A magical time where letters and numbers were beginning to make sense, but not at the expense of good old fashioned fun. Anna Rorem, a policy advocate the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, told UVA Today: “Playtime has been part of the kindergarten classroom since its beginnings … In fact, Freidrich Froebel, who helped make kindergarten popular in the United States, is said to have thought of play as ‘highly serious.’ Today, some research suggests that time for play and physical activity is beneficial for kids not only in its own right, but also as it helps them ’reset’ their attention spans.”
And on NPR, Segio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada said that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”
It’s time we start valuing play for kids, and not sacrificing their emotional and social development on the altar of facts, skills, and assessments.