Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Play is making a comeback in kindergarten classes located in the Maryland suburb of Pasadena, according to a recent New York Times article, “Kindergartens Ringing the Bell for Play Inside the Classroom.”

But support for play varies based on class-related ideas about what children need most: more play or more academics.

Describing Pasadena’s new approach to play, the Times writes:

“Mucking around with sand and water. Playing Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. Cooking pretend meals in a child-size kitchen. Dancing on the rug, building with blocks and painting on easels.

“Call it Kindergarten 2.0.”

“Concerned that kindergarten has become overly academic in recent years, this suburban school district south of Baltimore is introducing a new curriculum in the fall for 5-year-olds. Chief among its features is a most old-fashioned concept: play.”

Some teachers are excited about the new approach.

“But educators in low-income districts say a balance is critical,” the Times notes. “They warn that unlike students from affluent families, poorer children may not learn the basics of reading and math at home and may fall behind if play dominates so much that academics wither.”

Some parents also want more academics. On the Times’ Motherlode blog, KJ Dell’Antonia writes:

“As a parent, it’s hard to assess the impact of kindergarten. I wanted it to give my children what I did not. We had plenty of play kitchen toys at home, but with four young children close in age, I wasn’t doing much that could be even remotely called academic there. I hoped for more ‘academic’ work, especially for my oldest, whose kindergarten was half-day and seemed to me to consist almost entirely of taking snow gear off and putting it on again.”

This focus on academics has occurred across the country, partly in response to the growth of new standardized tests. The Times says:

“A study comparing federal government surveys of kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2010 by researchers at the University of Virginia found that the proportion of teachers who said their students had daily art and music dropped drastically. Those who reported teaching spelling, the writing of complete sentences and basic math equations every day jumped.

“The changes took place in classrooms with students of all demographic backgrounds, but the study found that schools with higher proportions of low-income students, as well as schools with large concentrations of nonwhite children, were even more likely to cut back on play, art and music while increasing the use of textbooks.

“Experts, though, never really supported the expulsion of playtime.”

What can be done?

As we blogged last year, the goal is to create high-quality kindergarten classes that are, as Education Week put it, “challenging and playful.”

Our blog links to a three-part video series called “High-Quality Kindergarten Today.” The series “’highlights best practices in kindergarten’ based on New Jersey’s comprehensive Kindergarten Implementation Guidelines.” The series also “offers teachers and administrators a view of what quality Kindergarten should look like. The series was funded by the Foundation for Child Development and co-produced by Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Education.”

The Times article adds: “many veteran kindergarten teachers, as well as most academic researchers, say they have long known that children learn best when they are allowed ample time to go shopping at a pretend grocery store or figure out how to build bridges with wooden blocks. Even the Common Core standards state that play is a ‘valuable activity.’”

“People think if you do one thing you can’t do the other,” Nell Duke, a professor of education at the University of Michigan told the Times. “It really is a false dichotomy.”

In 2009, an Alliance for Childhood report called “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School,” also called for a blended approaching, saying:

“… children of poverty need special attention in preschool and kindergarten… what they need is extra support to reap the full benefits of a play-based, experiential program. They may need more structure to begin with and guidance for entering into play, for many are inexperienced with it. They need a solid introduction to books, which most middle-class children have from infancy onwards, and they need to hear language used in conversation, storytelling, song, and verse. Equally important, they need to use language. Play is the foremost way that children use the language they are hearing.”

Another strategy is having full-day kindergarten programs, instead of half-day programs, so that children have more time to learn in environments that successfully blend play and learning.

“I feel like we have been driving the car in the wrong direction for a long time,” Carolyn Pillow, a long-time kindergarten teacher who attended a training session on Pasadena’s play-based curriculum, told the Times. “We can’t forget about the basics of what these kids need, which is movement and opportunities to play and explore.”