Time for play in most public kindergartens has dwindled to the vanishing point, replaced by lengthy lessons and standardized testing, according to three new studies released today by the Alliance for Childhood. Classic play materials like blocks, sand and water tables, and props for dramatic play have largely disappeared from the 268 full-day kindergarten classrooms studied.
The studies were conducted by researchers from U.C.L.A., Long Island University, and Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
The researchers found that
• On a typical day, kindergartners in Los Angeles and New York City spend four to six times as long being instructed and tested in literacy and math (two to three hours per day) as in free play or “choice time” (30 minutes or less).
• Standardized testing and preparation for tests are now a daily activity in most of the kindergartens studied, despite the fact that the use of most such tests with children under age eight is scientifically invalid and often harmful.
• In many kindergarten classrooms there is no playtime at all. Teachers say the curriculum does not incorporate play, there isn’t time for it, and many school administrators do not value it.
Child development experts have been raising alarms about the increasingly didactic, test-driven, and joyless course of early childhood education. “These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching,” states the Alliance’s report. “It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children’s health and their long-term prospects for success in school.”
The three studies break new ground by examining the use of time and materials in public kindergarten classrooms and the factors that affect children’s access to play. Independent research teams received funding from the nonprofit Maryland-based Alliance.
Numerous studies have shown that children who engage in complex socio-dramatic play develop higher levels of thinking, stronger language skills, better social skills, more empathy, and more imagination than children who do not play in this way. They are also less aggressive and show more self-control. Play also lowers stress levels in children.
Nevertheless, child-driven play has fallen out of favor in the U.S. Many people believe that kindergartners need to settle down and engage in serious learning. They see play as a waste of time, or worse, a descent into chaos.
Crisis in the Kindergarten argues that the superficial, chaotic play in “anything-goes, laissez-faire” kindergartens is as unacceptable as the highly regimented, didactic classroom that is devoid of play. The report also describes scripted teaching, which has gained momentum in schools across the country in the past decade, as “a vast experiment with virtually no basis in valid research.”
Psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play, calls the new research findings “heartbreaking.” In a foreword, he writes, “We have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make kindergarten a one-size-smaller first grade. Why in the world are we trying to teach the elementary curriculum at the early childhood level?”
The authors of Crisis in the Kindergarten, Alliance directors Edward Miller and Joan Almon, argue that the disappearance of kindergarten play is part of a larger societal problem. “Play is one of the vital signs of health in children,” they write. “We do not know the long-term consequences of the loss of play in early childhood, but this has become a concern for pediatricians and psychologists.”
They report evidence of significant increases in behavioral problems and school failure among kindergartners. They question unrealistic standards that are developmentally beyond many young children, forcing teachers to spend long hours trying to meet them, and leading to the wrongful labeling of normal child behavior and learning patterns as “misbehavior, attention disorders, or learning disabilities.”
The authors note that children in China and Japan, which are envied for their success in teaching science, technology, engineering, and math, enjoy a play-based, experiential approach to schooling until second grade. Finnish children similarly have a lengthy and playful childhood, not beginning formal schooling until age 7. Yet Finland consistently gets the highest scores on international exams.
Synthesizing a range of recent national and international research, including the three studies reported here for the first time, Crisis in the Kindergarten describes the current state of public kindergartens in the U.S. as “a national disgrace.” It calls for a refocusing of early education on well-designed play-based approaches, warning that the nation is “blindly pursuing educational policies that could well damage the intellectual, social, and physical development of an entire generation.”
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Crisis in the Kindergarten makes six recommendations for education policymakers, school administrators, teachers, and parents. For more details see Chapter 8 of the report at www.allianceforchildhood.org:
1. Restore child-initiated play and experiential learning with the active support of teachers to their rightful place at the heart of kindergarten education.
2. Reassess kindergarten standards to ensure that they promote developmentally appropriate practices, and eliminate those that do not.
3. End the inappropriate use in kindergarten of standardized tests, which are prone to serious error especially when given to children under age eight.
4. Expand the early childhood research agenda to examine the long-term impact of current preschool and kindergarten practices on the development of children from diverse backgrounds.
5. Give teachers of young children first-rate preparation that emphasizes the full development of the child and the importance of play, nurtures children’s innate love of learning, and supports teachers’ own capacities for creativity, autonomy, and integrity.
6. Use the crisis of play’s disappearance from kindergarten to rally organizations and individuals to create a national movement for play in schools and communities.
The complete report is here.