Kindergartners get little time to play. Why does it matter?

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Has play gone out of kindergarten?
Navy Hale Keiki School, CC BY

Christopher Brown, University of Texas at Austin

Being a kindergartner today is very different from being a kindergartner 20 years ago. In fact it is more like first grade. The Conversation

Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.

As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.

As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten.

So, why does this matter?

All work, and almost no play

First, let’s look at what kindergarten looks like today.

As part of my ongoing research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders – children, teachers, parents – about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom.

Learning for tests?

The classroom I filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities, which included decoding word drills, practicing sight words, reading to themselves and then to a buddy, counting up to 100 by 1’s, 5’s and 10’s, practicing simple addition, counting money, completing science activities about living things and writing in journals on multiple occasions. Recess did not occur until last hour of the day, and that too for about 15 minutes.

For children between the ages of five and six, this is tremendous amount of work. Teachers too are under pressure to cover the material.

When I asked the teacher, who I interviewed for the short film, why she covered so much material in a few hours, she stated,

There’s pressure on me and the kids to perform at a higher level academically.

So even though the teacher admitted that the workload on kindergartners was an awful lot, she also said she was unable to do anything about changing it.

She was required to assess her students continuously, not only for her own instruction, but also for multiple assessments such as quarterly report cards, school-based reading assessments, district-based literacy and math assessments, as well as state-mandated literacy assessments.

In turn, when I asked the kindergartners what they were learning, their replies reflected two things: one, they were learning to follow rules; two, learning was for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. Almost all of them said to me that they wanted more time to play. One boy said:

I wish we had more recess.

These findings mirror the findings of researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem that kindergarten now focuses on literacy and math instruction. They also echo the statements of other kindergarten teachers that kids are being prepared for high-stakes tests as early as kindergarten.

Here’s how play helps children

Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally. Furthermore, recess in particular helps children restore their attention for learning in the classroom.

Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.

Giving children a chance to play and engage in hands-on learning activities helps them internalize new information as well as compare and contrast what they’re learning with what they already know. It also provides them with the chance to interact with their peers in a more natural setting and to solve problems on their own. Lastly, it allows kindergartners to make sense of their emotional experiences in and out of school.

Children learn through play.
woodleywonderworks, CC BY

So children asking for more time to play are not trying to get out of work. They know they have to work in school. Rather, they’re asking for a chance to recharge as well as be themselves.

As another kindergarten boy in my study told me,

We learn about stuff we need to learn, because if we don’t learn stuff, then we don’t know anything.

Learning by exploring

So what can we do to help kindergartners?

I am not advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. All of the stakeholders I’ve talked with up to this point, even the children, know and recognize that kindergartners need to learn academic skills so that they can succeed in school.

However, it is the free exploration that is missing. As a kindergarten teacher I filmed noted:

Free and exploratory learning has been replaced with sit, focus, learn, get it done and maybe you can have time to play later.

Policymakers, schools systems and schools need to recognize that the standards and tests they mandate have altered the kindergarten classroom in significant ways. Families need to be more proactive as well. They can help their children’s teachers by being their advocates for a more balanced approach to instruction.

Kindergartners deserve learning experiences in school that nurtures their development as well as their desire to learn and interact with others. Doing so will assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.

Christopher Brown, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Who is Betsy DeVos?

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos speaks in Grand Rapids, Michigan. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos speaks in Grand Rapids, Michigan. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Dustin Hornbeck, Miami University

After President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos to become the head of the United States Department of Education, her name has spurred a great deal of conversation within the K-12 education community.

Much of this conversation has centered around Devos’ controversial past as a supporter, lobbyist and financial donor to causes that directly support school choice and school vouchers, and how she might further this cause if confirmed to be the next education secretary.

School Choice is a controversial movement that advocates for parents to “choose” the school (public, private, religious, charter, home, online) they feel is best for their children. Tuition is paid for by redistributing funds from government public schools, or from vouchers that come from a government entity. School choice proponents believe this market-based approach spurs competition, causing all schools to improve.

Trump made his support of school choice clear during his election campaign – Trump’s campaign promised to earmark US$20 billion to the federal education budget to provide “choice” for students nationwide.

As a researcher of education policy and politics, related to e-schools and brick and mortar charter schools, I’ve been following the dialogue within the political and educational community and the concerns over what her tenure as secretary of education will mean for school choice and public schools.

Critics worry that what DeVos worked toward in Michigan is a foreshadowing for what is to come in the United States. DeVos pushed school choice for two decades in her home state of Michigan to improve education, with disappointing results.

Who exactly is Betsy DeVos and what can we learn from her past actions?


Betsy DeVos’ most recent job was running the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization. The group’s self-described mission is “promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs and Education Savings Accounts.”

In this role, DeVos lobbied the state of Michigan, and others, for legislation that promotes school choice.

Children line up at a charter school.
Neon Tommy, CC BY-SA

Prior to running the American Federation for Children, DeVos was the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Michigan and served in other leadership roles in the Republican Party.

DeVos currently sits on the board of directors for the Alliance for School Choice – a special interest organization that marshals donations toward legislative action in favor of school vouchers.

DeVos is married to the heir to the Amway fortune and together both are billionaires. Neither DeVos nor her children ever attended a public school, which is unprecedented in the 35-year existence of the role of education secretary. Every education secretary to date either went to public school or had children that attended public schools.

Michigan agenda and beyond

While in Michigan, DeVos and her husband worked to advance the choice and voucher agenda substantially. Together, they started the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) which has worked to provide funding and private training to state legislators to advocate for the redirection of public funds from traditional public schools to other options, including charter schools, private schools, parochial schools (private schools with a religious affiliation) and online schools. Several of these types of schools are run by education management organizations that earn profit from managing publicly funded schools.

GLEP actively endorses candidates that subscribe to the school choice agenda. Since Trump named DeVos his pick for education secretary, GLEP’s current head, Gary Naeyaert, has posted several articles on GLEP’s website praising the work of DeVos.

The results of the increased choice in Michigan, and Detroit more specifically, are not clear. Stanford University released a study that claims that charter schools in Detroit have a slight edge over public schools. Conversely, a more recent study from New York City’s Independent Budget Office questions whether choice programs actually benefit lower income students. Many scholars have questioned the broader choice agenda.

What’s the future?

The question is, could DeVos influence policy?

Some might argue that in the United States, the federal government is secondary in crafting education policy because most educational decisions are left to states.

This is because the United States is a federal governmental system, and the Constitution, under which this system is governed, does not mention or consider the provision of education.

Despite the traditional understanding of state-controlled education, the national government has taken more power in the last several decades. The Department of Education budget has swelled to over $200 billion from just under $20 billion in 1980. Adding to the larger budget, Congress has passed several laws that promote educational accountability, which tie additional federal funds to state implementation of these statutory suggestions. It took the latest piece of federal legislation called the Every Student Succeeds Act, to put some of this power back to the states.

Accountability is based on a system of standardized testing.
Ryan McGilchrist, CC BY-SA

Accountability is based on a system of standardized tests that measure specific pieces of information. Proponents of choice and vouchers seem to look to these tests as the evidence that show whether or not students are learning.

This market-based approach is debated by teachers’ unions, parents and others in the public education field – but all 50 states have adopted some sort of testing accountability.

The organizations with which Betsy DeVos has been involved view standardized testing data as an essential tool needed for accountability. They use this as the evidence to support a movement that redistributes public school funds and gives parents the choice to send their children to private schools or charter schools. Some refer to this as privatization and point out that the effectiveness of federal choice policies is still unclear.

How education policies might be influenced based on these past actions is hard to know. One early indication could be Trump’s budget proposal to the Congress by Feb. 6. The education portion of his budget will reveal the intentions of the coming policies of the DeVos era and subsequent potential for “school choice.”

The Conversation

Dustin Hornbeck, Ph.D. Student in Educational Leadership and Policy, Miami University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.