They’re still doing it.
Despite all the research in the field that has continued for decades, that young children learn best through play, not from concentration on academic skills, kindergartens all over the country are still having five-year-olds sit for longer periods of time while the teachers stress reading, writing, and math skills in formalized lessons.
In an article in the May 10 Washington Post, education writer Valerie Strauss notes that five years ago she wrote about a New York school that cancelled its annual year-end kindergarten show because they wanted the children to keep working so they would be ready for “college and career.”
She also tells of another incident in which a kindergarten teacher saw another one moving a large play kitchen out of her room. “What are you doing,” she asked her colleague.”
“Moving this out of my room,” was the answer she got. “We have no time for play.”
We have written two books on early child care and education on the most successful ways young children grow, develop and learn. In our second book, Developing Quality Care for Young Children, we demonstrate the axiom that “play is the work of the child” and how this is applied at different stages of the child’s development in high-quality child-care centers and kindergartens. Virtually every authority in the field has been emphasizing this for years. Yet the pressure to prepare children academically for school has resulted in a de-emphasis on the importance of the play factor in many kindergartens and child care centers.
In our book, we describe our observations of one early childhood classroom in which the teacher had the children sitting and calling out letters and numbers on flash cards she was displaying in front of them. And later, the teacher distributed ditto sheets to give lessons on reading. No children walking around the room choosing their activities. No frills like toys that simply make noise or arouse curiosity.
And later, an art project with the teacher preparing the material and instructing the children on how and where to paste or color so that they learn to do it “the right way.” No finger painting or allowing the child to create his own imaginative art. No children cooperatively working together to build structures or projects they dream up. Just academics.
So perfect a setting. And so wrong. As we point out, “Reading to children, telling them stories, and asking them questions and then encouraging them to tell you their stories, or playing alphabet games, will prepare them for reading
far better than will the drills on letters of the alphabet or phonics.” Just one episode in a classroom in a high-quality child care center that we recount in our book will illustrate this.
“In the classroom, the teachers had interested the children in setting up a small house, just a bit bigger than a birdhouse and in it the children had placed five caterpillars along with leaves for food and other materials to replicate a natural setting. The class followed the instructions in a science kit for young children on how to care for the caterpillars. Each day, the children checked on the status of their project, as the teachers counseled children to be patient because, as we all know, children are impatient but nature can’t be rushed. And then one day, a day on which we fortunately visited the class, the teacher opened the door and behold, the caterpillars had turned into five beautiful butterflies. Then they all went out into the playground together to release the butterflies and let them “fly to freedom.” Encouraged by the teacher who held their arms one by one, the children put their fingers out in the entrance door to see if each butterfly would perch before flying away. But the butterflies all had other ideas as one by one, they simply fluttered out the door and flew away to the squeals of delight of the junior scientists.
What They Were Learning
Until the last butterfly” and a boy named Arnold’s turn. “As his eyes opened wide as saucers, he watched breathlessly as the butterfly made its way to the door, and then, suddenly fluttered a bit and perched on his index finger. The child was beside himself with joy as the teacher slowly showed him how to move his hand and send the butterfly out into the world “to freedom.” The expression on his face told it all. What an accomplishment for this child.
“And what an experience for the class. Afterward, the teachers encouraged them to describe what they had seen and then draw it. This wonderful fun project, this game they played, without ditto sheets or note cards or drills or having to “learn” anything. But oh, what they did learn from it. They learned science, the process that we call metamorphosis in
nature, that turns a larva into an adult insect. They learned communications skills by using language to describe what they saw. They learned to recall their visions by drawing them and developed the concept of symmetry as they drew the wings on each side of the bodies. They took steps down the path toward reading as they read stories and poems about butterflies. They strengthened their fine motor skills by fashioning play dough into caterpillars and butterflies. They engaged in music and movement activities as they used their imaginations to become dancing butterflies. They reinforced their knowledge of days, dates and numbers by keeping track on their class calendar of the number of days it took to hatch the butterflies. By cooperating with each other on the project, they learned to work closely with their peers. And finally, they learned to respect life and nature by setting the butterflies free. What an experience! And not a teacher-generated ditto sheet (or flash card) in sight.”
As the Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss points out, “Forcing so much time in academic areas that no time is left for creativity, building, constructing, pretending, imagination, music and movement, social skills practice and so many activities essential to the healthy development of the young child” is not only the wrong approach, it can kill the child’s interest in school for the future because “a child’s first learning experience determines a child’s attitude toward school for years to come.”
“The primary focus of kindergarten’” the article emphasizes, ‘should be executive functions such as problem-solving, organizing, sequencing, conflict resolution, decision-making, and reasoning”