Tag Archives: Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Can Learning As Play Make a Kindergarten Comeback ?

1(Urban Matters)  September 21, 2016

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.

Dinnerstein expands on these ideas on her blog, Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration and Play, and in a new book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning through Inquiry and Play, Pre-K – 2 published by Heinemann Press. In recent years, she also has helped develop kindergarten choice time at various local schools.

“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
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This is the platform for Early Childhood, presented at the Save Our Schools People’s Convention in Washington D.C..

Educators, parents, and anyone with concerns about the education of young children, what are your thoughts about this document?

DEY Early Childhood Platform
Posted on August 13, 2012 by geralyndeyproject
Note: DEY’s Senior Adviser Nancy Carlsson-Paige and our National Advisory Board member Deborah Meier recently presented our early childhood platform at the Save Our Schools People’s Education Convention, where folks were hugely supportive and helped to brainstorm ways to use the platform as we move forward.

Platform for Early Childhood Education

There has been an increasing pushdown of the academic skills to 3, 4 and 5 year olds that used to be associated with 1st – 3rd graders. This results in fewer of the direct play and hands-on experiences that lay the foundations for later academic success. At the same time, there is an increasing over-focus on rote academic skills in the early elementary grades. This includes more and more teacher talk rather than child talk in early childhood classrooms and often involves teacher-led instruction focused largely on memorizing facts and information. Young children need to see facts within meaningful contexts, to invent their own ideas and problems to explore and solve, to share their own solutions. These practices reflect a loss of trust in the intellectual capacities of young children – and an institutionalized crushing of their insatiable love of learning.

We’re forgetting that human beings are, from the moment they are born, experts at learning. Before they enter school, they have already discovered vast worlds of language and knowledge. Human beings are uniquely designed to be makers and creators – artists and craftsmen. And intellectuals.

The majority of early childhood classrooms today are driven by myriad of developmentally inappropriate standards-based tests and check lists that ignore children’s needs, capacities and cultures, and do not honor their uniqueness as learners. This brings great harm to our nation’s children by portraying them as deficient. The heaviest burden falls on those who live in poverty and with the fewest resources. As these trends take hold there has been a dumbing down of teaching and teacher knowledge, which is being increasingly replaced by commercial scripts that can be followed mindlessly. Less prepared teachers who are more willing to follow commercial scripts and manage data are entering the field of early childhood at the same time that increasingly frustrated experienced teachers are leaving. Older mentors who once wisely guided young teachers are fast disappearing.

If one purpose of public education, especially in a democracy, is to develop our capacity to exercise wise judgment when confronted with real world dilemmas, then we need to encourage young children to develop good judgment. They need adult models who demonstrate what exercising judgment is all about and who encourage children to ask questions, apply what they already know to new situations, use their imaginations, and think independently. In classrooms in which skills and knowledge are broken into small skill subsets and factlets and taught directly to kids, such judgment becomes suffocated from the start.

While many of the misguided practices we see in schools today took place in earlier times, especially in the education of poor children, they were not enforced by punitive state and federal policy or driven by frequent, costly, and inappropriate assessment tools, as is the case today—nor begun at such a young age.

What is the answer?
1. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests. It’s long been known to experts that tests for young children have very low reliability, are dependent on too many random factors, and are impacted by class, race and home culture.

2. Use assessments that are ongoing and evolving and connected closely to observations of children, their development and learning, and to a child-centered curriculum.

3. Provide classrooms where teachers engage in well-thought out and intentional extensions/expansions of children’s play and learning in ways that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child’s uniqueness.

4. Provide children with literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and dramatic reenactments that grow out of their experiences rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.

5. See and appreciate what children can do and understand without focusing on learning everything earlier. Offer classrooms where children are not praised, rewarded or criticized because they are slower or faster than others. Research tells us, earlier does not prove to be better.

6. Provide a school environment that respects the language and culture of children and their families, encourages families to take ownership, and insures that their history and experiences are included and valued.

7. Offer school schedules that provide ample time for families and school personnel to meet and work together. Including family members in meaningful ways in the school’s governance structure so that they and children feel their voices are being heard.

8. Realize the critical role of early childhood teachers, whose work is as important as that of those who teach PhD candidates, and compensate them as such. We must reverse the assumption that the younger the children we teach, the less knowledgeable and competent teachers need to be.

9. Implement a school pedagogy that understands that children are intrinsically active learners from the time they are born and that learning happens in and out of a school building in unique ways. Adults don’t need to get children “ready to learn”; they don’t have to reinforce skills and facts stressed in school at home.

10. Provide children and families with access to high quality, affordable child care and after-school care.

What Can We Do?

Take this platform to your neighbor, children’s teachers, parent groups, school board and legislative bodies. As them to support efforts to bring best practice back to the education of young children.

Stay informed and involved with the organizations that advocate for young children – such as Defending the Early Years (deyproject.org), Alliance for Childhood (allianceforchildhood.org), Save Our Schools (saveourschoolsmarch.org) and Parents Across America (parentsacrossamerica.org). (Also check out local organizations such as Citizens for Public Schools in Massachusetts citizensforpublicschools.org.)

Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda – drilling for skills – and replace it with what centuries of wisdom and research has taught us: children learn when they are deeply engaged in self-selected, self-directed and playful activities. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood. You don’t need expensive toys or technology to support their development. They need the natural world, simple props, good friends and appreciative adults.

Notice and enjoy all the things the children you know CAN do.