Tag Archives: Diane Ackerman

Supporting Parents -“Play is our brain’s way of working”

Everyone understands that this is a stressful time for parents and for children. Parents are thrown into a new role. Now they are responsible for taking care of their families such as cooking, cleaning and caring for children, suddenly being a home-teacher and in many instances also working a day job from home. It’s exhausting just to think about it.

I’m going to concentrate on how families can support the learning that kindergarten children are doing now that they are confined to home. Here is the truly important idea about the education of young children that parents can hold onto. Children learn through their play! If they’re pretending to have a restaurant they might be making menus, using important literacy skills. If they’re building a tower with blocks or a fort with couch pillows, they’re learning about balance and also, most important, they’re learning to problem solve.

Let’s create a situation where you can find some cardboard boxes , you’ve had deliveries in boxes or you get some when you go out for groceries., Rather than throwing them in the recycle bin, you hold onto them. ( If you don’t have any, you might ask neighbors if they can leave one or two outside your door.) You have a true treasure to give to your child. Empty boxes can get the wheels of the child’s mind spinning. If you have a big box, that opens up so many possibilities. All you need to do is “gift” the box to the child and say, almost to the room, “I wonder what this box will become.” Then leave the child alone with it. It’s helpful if crayons or markers, paper, glue, maybe even cardboard strips and empty paper towel dowels are nearby. Now the fun begins. Just to warn you, it doesn’t begin quickly. Children need, what I call, mess around time. They need time to think and to consider. Maybe it’s necessary to step away from the box, but just leave it in place because he/she will, I’m sure, come back to it. Perhaps at dinner it could be the topic of a family discussion. You, or grandpa,  your partner or an older child might think aloud about what you might be doing with the box. “I always wanted to go to outer space. Wouldn’t that be a great rocket ship?”, you might say. Then another adult might disagree. “I would make a big fire truck that I could ride in.” If your child doesn’t say anything, then just drop the subject and go on to something else. Be assured that he/she is starting to think about what will happen.

Perhaps the next day you might casually give your child a big piece of paper and say, “I found this paper, just in case you want to make a plan for your box.” You don’t have to say anything else. You’ve planted seeds.

There’s a nice YouTube video of the author reading her book “It’s Not a Box” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMCKXaFsmCA&t=45s0 ) and you might want to look at it together as a family. It’s a lovely story.

I want to assure you that an activity like this, which is very open-ended and leaves so much to the child’s imagination, is important play. It’s actually so much more powerful in terms of a young child’s learning than practicing with worksheets. When a child is playing he is learning to make a plan and follow through (such as if a child decides to draw a picture of his family and has to plan who is to be included in the drawing); he learns through trial and error and uses his imagination, such as building a tower or a fort with pillows. (Oops, it fell. Now I have to figure out a new way to build it so it won’t fall.); makes scientific and mathematical observations when cooking or making play dough with a parent and seeing how the addition of each ingredient creates changes and how important it is to measure just the right amount of flour, salt and water. uses reason and analytical thinking if she’s doing a puzzle and has to figure out where the pieces go; derives feeling of satisfaction when a puzzle or a rocket ship is completed; and thinks creatively such as when she is figuring out how to mix paint or crayon colors to make a new color.

Think of these learning categories and how they are important skills for success in life– creating a plan, following through, trial and error, imagination, making mathematical and scientific observations, using analytical reasoning, and thinking creatively.

One way that you can help support children with their play is to step back and give the child time and space, as I mentioned before. But you also can ask meaningful questions and make important observations to provoke children’s thinking. As strange as it may seem, these are questions that have no right or wrong answer. For example, if you’re looking at your child’s drawing, instead of asking, “What is this color called?” you might say, “You’ve made such an interesting choice of colors here.” and then wait a moment to see if your child wants to talk about the colors. Sometimes though, the child is deep into the creative process and that might be a time for the parent to just step back and give some space.

Here are some examples of questions that you might ask your child during and after play:
• Can you tell me how this works?
• Could you tell me what you were thinking…? (When you decided to do this? When you added this part to the drawing? Etc.)
• What might happen if ___________?
• Why did that happen?
• What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
• That is very interesting. That time you _______ instead of _______.
• I see ________. What’s happening here?
• Hmm, how does that work?
• I wonder____________(wondering is always good to do)
• What are other ideas you have about ____________.

“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” – Diane Ackerman (famous poet, naturalist, essayist)

Where Is the Rage?

Five, overall, is a time of great happiness.
Life is “good” says the five year old.
Chip Wood, Yardsticks

Ah, but if it could be true that the school life of a five-year-old was filled with great happiness!

This week I received an email from a kindergarten teacher working in a South Bronx, New York public school. After teaching pre-kindergarten for the last few years, she was now moving up to kindergarten. At her request, we met during the summer vacation to plan out a Playground Study for the start of the school year. Not having heard from her, I emailed her to find out how the study was progressing and this is her response:

“In answer to your question: currently 22 children that are great BUT there is reading workshop, writing workshop, everyday math, social studies and science…with formative assessments, summative assessments for each subject, each unit…performance tasks, curriculum mapping, Fundations, conferring, ECLAS, and of course the COMMON CORE…. and more I’m probably forgetting. If it weren’t so exhausting I’d think it’s hilarious. The object seems to be to give us so much to do that both we and the system implode and be declared broken and the corporations march in to the “rescue”. We DO have choice time which saves the day. The children are literally in ecstasy when they get to play. I began to do the playground study but frankly Renee, right now I can’t take on one more thing. Since this is all new to me I’m learning to manage just the million things I’m supposed to do…including writing down the CC standards for each lesson each day, everyday of the week. That alone takes several hours. Fortunately my colleagues found a $25 lesson plan app that lets you just click on the CC standard!!! See? Someone else is making money off of this absurdity. On the other hand I LOVE working with this age…the children are so enthusiastic and able and easy to motivate. I just hope I don’t get “in trouble” for too much singing.”


The NAEYC position statements on developmentally appropriate practices (Bredekamp, 1986; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; NAEYC, 2009) have addressed developmentally inappropriate and problematic practices such as predominantly teacher-directed tasks, highly structured classes, large group work, paper/pencil tasks, rote learning, direct teaching of discrete skills, punishment, extrinsic rewards, and standardized assessment. These examples stand in contrast to developmentally appropriate practices, such as encouragement of active exploration, a predominance of concrete experiences, positive guidance, and interactions that promote healthy self-esteem and positive feelings toward school.
Lori A. Jackson,Observing Children’s Stress Behaviors in a Kindergarten Classroom


After reading the email from the Bronx teacher, I began to think about other classrooms around the city. Last year I spent time in Bill Fulbrecht’s kindergarten class in Park Slope, an upscale Brooklyn, NY neighborhood. Bill spends an hour each day on Choice Time and he takes his children out to the schoolyard to play every day. Although he has complained to me about the time spent on completing many assessments, he still has some freedom to give children many opportunities for play and exploration during the course of the school day. But is this happening around the city? What is happening in schools where there are mainly children who are eligible for free lunch and who come from homes where families are struggling to just ‘get by’? I decided to send out a few more emails.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to work with a wonderfully dedicated and enthusiastic young first grade teacher in a school in East Flatbush Brooklyn, New York. This year he is teaching kindergarten. Like the teacher in the Bronx, he too contacted me this summer for some ideas about creating an exciting inquiry-based curriculum for his kindergarteners. His school population is mainly African-American. About ¾ of the children in the school are eligible for free lunch.

In response to my email, I received his kindergarten schedule along with some of his comments. Luckily for the children, they have a teacher who tries in every way that he can to add some joy and excitement to their day in school. However, as you can see by his schedule, this is quite a challenge!

“I must admit; as per the common core curriculum and its push for rigor, the majority of the school day is spent on academics.
This is an average day in my classroom.
8:00 to 8:20:  Morning routine. (calendar routines, morning message, poem and chants )
8:20 to 10:05:  Literacy workshop ( shared reading, read aloud, Fundations phonics, independent reading, guided reading) Students will work in their literacy stations during guided reading.
10:05 to 10:55:  Lunch
10:55 to 11:40:  Math workshop
11:45 to 12:40:  Cluster
12:45 to 1:30:  Writers workshop
1:35 to 2:23 Social studies or science
Choice time is usually squeezed into the end of the day for 20 minutes. That is my day in a nutshell.
I plan lessons that allow the student to work in groups to explore and inquire. I have noticed the importance of play especially since I moved to kindergarten.
Unfortunately, with the new expectations there is little time left in the day to allow choice time. Teachers feel the pressure to push and pressure their students to work with rigor.
September is all about assessing our students. I assess while the students are in literacy stations and I also take students out of their cluster specials to assess. We have to do assessments in both literacy and math.
A specific 45 minutes weekly block is planned by the school for the pre-K to first grade students. Student occasionally get to play for 10 minutes during their lunch break. Unfortunately recess is over before it gets started.”


There is a great deal of evidence that the road to mastery of any subject is guided by play. Learning a subject by rote can take one only so far.
Stuart Brown, M.D. with Christopher Vaughan, founder of the National Institute for Play
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul


How is someone who is steeped in the theories and beliefs of good early childhood education supposed to react to the reality of contemporary kindergarten education? Many teachers who have had years of experience teaching young children, using developmentally appropriate and intellectually challenging practices are either taking an earlier-than-expected retirement or moving out of the grade.

My friend Herb Bleich came to teaching as a second career. He brought his astute intellect, his love of children, his passion for music and his joy of life to his classroom. In his Central Harlem, New York public school his kindergarten classroom was an oasis of joy. A few years ago, however, he saw clearly the handwriting on the wall and realized that the nature of his kindergarten program was going to be forced to change. Rather than do that, he decided to teach pre-kindergarten. I emailed Herb and asked if he too could share his thoughts. Here is his response:

“Despite the fact that I really loved kindergarten, I certainly felt it was a never- ending rat race to keep up with everything. One thing that stands out in my mind was the rush everyday to check homework during lunch, and supply new homework. I remember thinking that if I could go to pre-k, the pressure would be so much less, and I could keep it up forever. (It is less, but as always I seem to put pressure on myself, and lately official pressure is creeping in as well.)

In terms of your questions, I managed during my five years in kindergarten to always start the day with an hour of choice time. The other main blocks were readers’ workshop, writers’ workshop, and math. The class had limited outdoor play during the lunch period. The main assessment as I remember was E-CLAS, which I did during prep. I was under your influence during those years, and my administration left me pretty much alone.
However, my kindergarten experience ended seven years ago, and today it’s a totally different story. Choice time is gone in our K classes, the day is divided into mandated blocks as you would suspect, and yes, lots of class time is devoted to assessment (eg., frequent F & P reading levels, math and ELA unit tests).

Incidentally, about a year after I left kindergarten some sage from the District visited the school and instructed that the kindergartens’ blocks should be thrown away; time needed to be devoted to academics. (I salvaged them from the trash.)

I’ve always felt I left kindergarten just in time.”


Play is far older than humans. It’s so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play…Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.

Diane Ackerman, Deep Play

Where is the rage against this rigid, joyless curriculum?