Can ‘Learning as Play’ Make a Kindergarten Comeback?
By Lydie Raschka
One day last school year, a girl in Fanny Roman’s kindergarten class at PS 244 in Flushing, Queens arrived bubbling with excitement about her new shoes. With Roman’s encouragement, she began tracing classmates’ feet on paper and constructing “shoes,” using pipe cleaners for laces. Her enthusiasm proved contagious; in response, Roman read poetry and picture books about shoes and students set up a play shoe store of their own, with different-sized shoes in boxes, labeled “Jellies” or “Sneakers”, as they categorized by size and even priced their wares. In their writing, they started using words such as “Velcro,” buckles” and “shoelaces.”
Welcome to “choice time.” In a number of New York City elementary school kindergarten classes, it revives, in modified fashion, the once-common play-as-learning “free time” that’s been driven almost to extinction in favor of whole-class instruction, textbooks, worksheets, and other elements of more rigorous education in the Common Core era.
Nationally, the amount of kindergarten time spent on reading and math instruction has substantially increased, according to a recent study published by AERA Open, titled, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” Authors Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem found that some 80% of a national sample of teachers now believe students should learn to read in kindergarten, compared to only 31% who thought that in 1998; only 40% reported at least an hour of student-driven activities per day in their classrooms.
While there’s no question that early education is critical, there’s also a growing number of researchers, educators, and parents questioning whether the formal academic approach now rooted in many kindergarten classrooms has gone too far.
Academic expectations and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, some early childhood experts say. Lilian G. Katz, author of Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children, argues that while “bits of information,” such as learning the sound of the letter “s,” do matter, they may not warrant as much time as schools increasingly give them. She and other prominent educators, including Deborah Meier and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, are part of a nonprofit group called “Defending the Early Years,” intended to help early childhood educators combat an increased focus on academics over the discovery, inquiry, and play that stimulates the mind in a fuller way and is often called “choice time.”
Another highly respected, now retired, elementary school teacher in New York City, Renée Dinnerstein, believes that a way to stimulate a rich choice time is to “make the classroom into a sort of laboratory for children – to create a science center where they really feel like scientists; an art center where they really feel like artists.”
“The challenge,” she says, “is to plan inquiry-based, explorative choice time, acknowledging important elements of free play within the high standards expected” in the Common Core-era classroom – even in kindergarten.
“The teacher’s prepared environment is essentially what differentiates free play and choice time,” Dinnerstein says. That can mean, for example, creating a classroom “construction area” replete with kid-sized safety goggles, vests, blocks, hard hats, sign-making materials and mini-people or animals. Teachers introduce items of interest based on what kids say and do.
PS 244 principal Bob Groff says that for his students (drawn from a heavily Chinese immigrant neighborhood where some 70% start school with little or no English) “choice time is a great opportunity to develop language socially and academically at the same time.” It also encompasses reading, writing, and math learning goals. “This blends all of that together,” he said. “It’s natural, not forced. It’s going to have more long-lasting success.”
Kindergarten teacher Fanny Roman is a believer in choice time, too, and has put it at the start of the school day. “I liked it first thing,” she said. “It made me so excited every day to come in.” Nevertheless, choice time also takes time—time that isn’t easy to find. “Every minute counts,” said Roman. “It’s all about the testing grades and what we have to do to get them ready in kindergarten.”
Dinnerstein thinks those minutes could be used better—to create an intellectually stimulating kindergarten that promotes reasoning, analyzing, predicting, and questioning. “When kids are pushed to read early, they’re not pushed to do a lot of thinking,” she said. “It’s not like I’m against children learning to read. [But] I don’t think the goal is that every child leaving kindergarten has to learn to read. If you have two children in one family, they’re not learning everything at the same speed—crawling, pushing up, standing—but they all end up walking.”
Lydie Raschka is on the staff of the InsideSchools project of the Center for New York City Affairs. She’s a Montessori teacher-trainer during the summer months.
Photo Credit: Fanny Roman
Urban matters home
I was recently asked by the P.S. 142 support network to write something about the inquiry work being done in the early childhood classes of their school. I thought that I would share this with you. Writing it down really did help clarify the work for me! I encourage your questions and thoughts on this topic!
The inquiry project work that I have been doing at P.S. 142 is grounded in the research and practice of Lilian Katz, (former president of NAEYC and founder of the ERIC research center) and also in the work done in the early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
The Project Approach, an outgrowth of Ms. Katz’s work at the University of Illinois, is based on the following beliefs:
∗ All children come to school with the desire to understand their life experiences
∗ All children want to learn
∗ There is a strong interconnection between the life of the school and the real life outside of school, they are not separate spheres
∗ Although students construct their own knowledge, they need the expertise of teachers to facilitate and guide this process of construction
∗ Students have diverse strengths, weaknesses, interests and backgrounds
∗ It is a great advantage to capitalize on these differences to help children learn from one another
∗ Students learn best when they have a positive self esteem and a sense of purpose
∗ Children learn through a mixture of first-hand observation, hands-on experience, systematic instruction and time for personal reflection
∗ Social and emotional skills are equally as important as academic skills and knowledge for student success and classrooms need to be flexible learning spaces that support and adapt to student needs.
Complementing this, the schools in Reggio Emilia (which I have visited twice and where I will be returning to in October, 2012 with a group of literacy leaders such as Ellin Keene, Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Katy Wood Ray) are founded on the following key features:
∗ The environment of the classroom is important enough to be considered a second teacher and must be organized with this thinking in mind
∗ Children have a multitude of symbolic languages (consistent with Howard Gardener’s writing on multiple intelligences); documentation in many forms helps to drive the curriculum; children can engage in long-term and short term in-depth investigations that incorporate responding, recording, playing, exploring, and hypothesis building and testing
∗ The teacher is a researcher who carefully listens, observes and documents children’s work and the growth of community in the classroom and who is expected to provoke and stimulate thinking
∗ There should be a strong home-school relationship where children, teachers, parents, caregivers and the community are interactive and work together.
In my work at P.S. 142, I have been encouraging the teachers to look and listen carefully to the children throughout the day. When we begin planning for our inquiry projects, the teachers and I first take a walk around the community, thinking carefully about what children see and experience in the world outside of school. We also discuss what inquiry project experiences children have had in the previous grades and how a new project will allow children to build on their new schema. Therefore, children who have had the experience of in depth investigations of the Williamsburg Bridge and then the subway system can logically move on to an inquiry project that focuses on cars and car travel.
Before beginning the project with the children, the teachers map out what we call an Anticipatory Web. This includes the possibilities for exploration on the topic, resources such as books, Internet sites, experts to be interviewed, and field trips to support the study. Possible activities across the curriculum are included. We look at the common core standards and discuss how they can be addressed through the project work.
We are often fixated on understanding and assessing our academic goals for instruction. However, as Lilian Katz has written “a curriculum or teaching method focused on academic goals emphasizes the acquisition of bits of knowledge and overlooks the centrality of understanding as an educational goal. After all, literacy and numeracy skills are not ends in themselves but basic tools that can and should be applied in the quest for understanding. In other words, children should be helped to acquire academic skills in the service of their intellectual dispositions, and not at their expense.”
When the kindergarten, first grade and second grade children at P.S. 142 begin work on an inquiry project, the teacher always begins by brainstorming for all that the children already know on a topic. Often young children, particularly children with special needs, have difficulty articulating verbally what they know and so children have many opportunities to express their prior knowledge in many ways. They can draw a picture, create a model, act out or tell their story. We have found that if children can create an image of their ideas, then this acts as a support for them when the class meets to discuss and record information.
After recording their information on post its, the teacher will usually meet with a small group of children to begin organizing these notes into categories. A few of the post-its are read through together and discussed. Children think about which statements belong together. For example, in the Car Project, children might have said, “Cars have engines” “You can take a car to ride to the country” “Car drivers have to follow traffic rules” “There are seatbelts in cars” “Cars can go fast “I went to Coney Island in a car”. The small group might then organize these statements into these categories. ” HOW CARS CAN GO, WHERE CARS CAN GO, PARTS OF A CAR, RULES FOR CARS. This chart is then shared at meeting time and the entire class then completes this. Using a small group to begin makes the process more manageable for children who would lose focus when presented with too much information.
Referring to this newly formed web, the class then begins recording their questions in the form of “wonderings. These questions will drive the investigation. This year, in one of the kindergarten classes, the teacher was having a difficult time engaging children in formulating important questions for investigation. Because this is the fourth year that she has been doing inquiry projects, she realized how important this step is in the process. Rather than come up with questions herself, she knew that the children’s involvement and curiosity were crucial to tap into. She came up with the idea of creating “research committees.” They had just started an inquiry project about firefighters. The teacher had already collected and shared the children’s drawings and stories about firefighters. She read a few books to them and had a toy firetruck in the classroom. She asked the children to help her list important things that they knew about firefighters and fire engines and listed this on a chart. Then children picked which one they wanted to research. Being on these ‘committees’ supported children in developing important questions!
Last year the first grade began the year with a study of bridges. This was a natural choice based on the location of the school right along the ramp of the Williamsburg Bridge. When winter arrived, they moved on to a subway study, since, on their walks across the bridge, they had noticed the train traveling alongside them. Also many children rode the subway to school. In spring, however, they circled back to the bridge study, this time focusing on moveable bridges. By now, all of the children brought with them much prior knowledge from the first two studies of the year. When the class made a trip to the bridges over the Gowanus Canal, they had the exciting opportunity to stand on the Carroll Street retractile (swing) bridge as it opened. The teacher pointed out the gears and the tracks, relating it to all that they had seen when observing subways. The next day, back in one classroom, a group of children were building a moveable bridge. Before beginning they each drew a plan for the bridge that would be built. When the teacher came over to see the bridge she asked whose plan they used. One child who particularly has a history of acting out behaviors explained how they used “a little of his, a little of his, and a little of mines,” Collaboration was a major challenge for this child but because of the excitement of the investigation and building activity, and his engagement with the topic, he more naturally was able to rise to the challenge of cooperative play.
Recently, one of the second grade classes, as part of their car inquiry project, went on a walking trip to visit the Municipal parking lot on Essex Street. Previously, they had walked through the neighborhood, carefully reading and interpreting the various street parking signs and the muni-meter. The teacher put money in the muni-meter and showed the children what the ticket that came out looked like. At the parking garage the children again observed and interpreted the various signs and symbols letting drivers know where to park, when, where and how much to pay, and when to stop and go. Each child had a personal “trip recording book” that included photographs of different parts of the parking garage. Before the trip they wrote predictions and questions that they would like answered. They took notes at the garage and had time to write reflections when they returned to the classroom.
Back in the classroom, the children broke off into groups. One group went to the block area and began work on building a parking garage, putting up signs and symbols and adding toy cars so that they could role-play “parking garage”. Another child chose to work in the math center, using the pattern blocks to design cars. She recorded how she created her cars, using the symbols for the various shapes. A group of children went to the art center where they used recycled materials to construct cars – some realistic and some imaginary, such as the flying car made from an empty water bottle. After the completed their constructions, they wrote descriptions of the cars. Four children worked with the student teacher on researching some of the questions on the class “Wonderings” chart. They wrote their answers on post-its that they put over the questions to show that they have already been answered. Another group that consisted of a group of children who had more advanced mathematics and reading skills played “What’s The Rule” using a new game that included a set of “Cool Cars” cards. In observing the group, I was impressed with the way that each small group was working with a high level of focus, independence and engagement. I also noted that the teacher was able to maintain an atmosphere of play and also engage children in reading, writing and mathematics.
That afternoon, in the same classroom, the teacher used the muni-meter experience to generate a mathematics problem that the class solved together. She then asked the children to create their own muni-meter problem, write it up, solve it, show on paper how they solved the problem and illustrate their story. As I walked around the room with the teacher, I saw how she was able to use this one recent experience and allow all children to work at their own level of knowledge. Each child’s problem was validated and supported by the classroom teacher. Children were eagerly sharing their math stories with each other at their tables.
The teachers have been using a template for observing children during centers and inquiry work time that I was introduced to by a Swedish teacher who was visiting Reggio Emilia when I was last there. This is a form that is divided into three sections. Blank forms are kept on clipboards in each center so that the teacher, student teacher, teaching assistant or parent helper can easily access them. The first section is labeled “What do I see?” This is where the observing adult records interesting and worthwhile observations. That is the only section that is recorded at this time, so it doesn’t take a lot of time away from the teacher’s interactions with children during Choice Time. Later in the day, when there is time for reflection, the teacher returns to the observation sheet and completes the next two columns, “What does this mean?” (Interpreting the observations) and “My next steps” (based on what I have seen, what instructional, organization, or social changes should be implemented?)
At the very end of an inquiry project, I spend time with teachers on some self-evaluation. We use an adaptation of an inquiry evaluation form that is in the book Young Investigators by Judy Harris Helms and Lilian Katz. Some of the questions that we discuss (we do this totally through discussion and not by filling in a form) are:
∗ Did the children take responsibility for their own work or activity?
∗ Were children absorbed and engrossed in their work?
∗ Were children strategic learners?
∗ Were the children becoming increasingly collaborative?
∗ Were tasks in the projects challenging and integrative?
∗ How do you use children’s work from the project to assess learning?
∗ How did you facilitate and guide the children’s work?
Based on our assessment discussion last June, this year we decided that a major focus of my consulting work with them would be on documentation. We will consider how to use the documentation of project work to help t plan for whole class and differentiated instruction. We also want to use this documentation to help, strengthen the home/school connections and to provide opportunities for children to become more involved in self-assessment and setting personal goals.