Kindergarten: All Rigor and No Recess -- What Happened to Play?

iVoice Beth Engelman, whose son just started Kindergarten, talks with the nation's Education Secretary about the importance of play

What happened to free play? What was once a staple in Kindergarten classrooms around the country has disappeared, replaced with structured “learning time” that focuses on curriculum designed to improve test scores and meet state standards. In fact, many schools have scrapped recess in favor of more classroom learning time. For many parents this is a non-issue as they feel schools need to become more academically rigorous in order to prepare our kids to compete in the global economy. But is taking away recess and self-initiated play the answer?

“Learning how to take turns, negotiate, think creatively and problem solve are just some of the skills children learn through play,” said Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.  I had the opportunity to meet Secretary Duncan at a playground-building event sponsored in part by the national non-profit KaBOOM! in conjunction with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Secretary Duncan told me that he credits recess with helping him do better in school. “I was one of those kids who needed to run around a lot,” the Harvard alum said. “Recess was a great stress release and helped me concentrate better in class.”

Other parents, educators and policy makers agree. “People are always concerned with our academic standing as it relates to other countries,” said Darell Hammond, founder of KaBOOM!. “But if you look at the countries that repeatedly rank highest on international PISA exams such as Finland, China and Japan, you’ll find that they all have one thing in common: a play-based curriculum for early learners.” A play-based curriculum allows children to become actively involved in their learning experience. Whether it’s figuring out how to turn a bunch of old boxes into a “superhero robot” or working with others to make a bridge out of blocks, valuable knowledge and skills are learned through play.

In “The Crisis in Kindergarten,” authors Joan Almon and Edward Miller explore how academic standards have shifted over the last twenty years greatly reducing (and sometimes eliminating) play-based learning. What they found was, today’s Kindergarten students are doubly burdened with meeting unrealistic academic expectations that are traditionally reserved for first grade learners while also being denied time to play (which is an excellent way to blow off steam and relieve stress). Almon and Miller believe this double burden has contributed to an increase in the incidence of anger and aggressive behavior in young children. The authors also assert that there is no known research that supports the efficacy of more academically challenging Kindergarten programs. In fact, they site research from a German study that shows that by age ten, children who went to a “play-based early learning program” were more advanced in reading and math (not to mention they were better adjusted socially and emotionally) than those kids who attended a more academic early learning center.

So the next time you see your kids building a fort in the middle of your living room or turning an old sheet into a parachute for ants, let it go. You just might be helping your kids develop meaningful skills that will set the foundation for a lifetime of learning.

Beth Engelman, an iVoice on iVillage, is a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, who has written several interactive children’s books and games. Her column, “Mommy on a Shoestring,” appears in over 30 local papers around the Chicago area as well as on the Chicago Sun-Times / Pioneer Press website.  She has a blog by the same name, Mommy on a Shoestring and is a regular contributor to WCIU-TV and WGN in Chicago.  


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