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Let 'em Play!

Updated: Apr 5

Recently, a young mother asked me if I thought she should wait an extra year before enrolling her son in kindergarten. Because of his August birthday, she was concerned that if she enrolled him, he would be one of the youngest students in the class. The difference between an older 5 and younger 5 can be significant. Delaying entrance into kindergarten (usually boys) has been a topic of discussion for over 30 years. Prior to that time, it was not a major concern. So, why the big change? At issue is the increased focus on academics at the kindergarten level.

I well remember the turning point. I had been teaching first grade for quite a few years and felt good about the curriculum. That was UNTIL - until slowly, but surely, academic content taught in first grade was pushed down to kindergarten. Likewise, content that was being taught in second grade was pushed down to first grade. Expectations for third graders became expectations for second graders and so on, and so on. Kindergarten teachers were the first to complain. Up and down the halls frustrations could be heard (We’re pushing these children too hard. This content is too academic for kindergarten. These new expectations are not developmentally appropriate.). The kindergarten teachers clearly saw the handwriting on the wall, but no one was listening.

Then, IT happened! As if adding insult to injury, kindergarten teachers were told that rest time would no longer be allowed; a step that was followed by the removal of what had been a standard in kindergarten classrooms: water and sand tables, blocks, Legos, housekeeping, community helper centers, etc. All were to be replaced by activities that were deemed more 'academically' oriented. Ultimately, kindergarten teachers were informed that their students would only be allowed one recess break per day. And so it was - activities that had been standard for years, known to significantly help children build social skills, strengthen self-control, and apply independent problem-solving strategies were removed.

Throughout history, play among children has involved freewheeling, imaginative activities whereby children take on roles that allow them to become various characters (princesses, pirates, kings, queens, cops and robbers....). It may look like they aren't really doing much at all but, in fact, they are doing quite a bit: organizing, developing possible scenarios, creating rules, implementing strategies, taking turns, and holding each other accountable - actively applying the very skills needed to become respectful, responsible, resourceful adults.

While engaging in imaginative play, children talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. This self-talk correlates to executive function, the broad variety of important tasks that our brains regularly perform (verbal reasoning, problem solving, memory, self-control, organizing thoughts, etc.). Strengthening executive function through meaningful, constructive play at an early age can do more to predict future success than attempts to make lower grade curriculums more academically rigorous.

Numerous studies have found no long-term gains from early childhood programs that are predominantly academically based. In fact, it is not uncommon for academic advantages observed in kindergarten to level off by 3rd grade. Later declines in student attitudes toward school and increased anxiety levels have also been noted.

Successful students are problem solvers and team players. They understand the importance of being fair and abiding by rules. Providing sufficient time for children to engage in a variety of forms of play during the early school years (whole group, small group, organized, free, imaginative and individual) is one of the most natural and meaningful ways that children independently learn valuable life skills. Focusing on what is developmentally appropriate for young children yields sustainable, long term gains and paves the way for greater student success.

Whoever first recognized that play is the work of childhood had it right!

©Sharon Knapp Lamberth, July 2021


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