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Rockin' And Rollin' In the Classroom

“That little fellow over there is rocking and rolling all day every day,” the teacher commented when I stopped by her class to borrow a book. The little boy was at his desk, up on his knees, fanny in the air, rapidly tilting his chair back and forth.  As I was leaving the room, I heard the chair fall and classmates break into laughter.

When I began teaching elementary school in the 1970s, I observed (some) students, typically male, who were highly active, their bodies in motion more often than not. I have no recollection of that being the case when I was in elementary school, not that we weren’t active. We played hard on the playground, but once back in the classroom we quickly settled ourselves. In-class chatter and occasional 'silliness' was about as bad as it got.

During my teaching tenure, End-of-Grade assessments became the norm. Over time, escalating concern over the number of students failing to demonstrate grade level proficiency on annual assessments prompted school districts to focus on increasing academic rigor, beginning in kindergarten. Unfortunately, increasing academic requirements at the lower elementary grades tended to overlook the fact that the years from birth to age 8 are recognized as the early childhood years, years identified by critical stages of development that children experience, though not all at the same pace.  

In the effort to increase rigor, many first-grade curriculum expectations were moved to kindergarten, resulting in the removal of age-appropriate centers that had been a kindergarten standard for years (Legos/blocks, dress up, housekeeping…). Recess time was also reduced to allow more time for formal instruction. Though the intended goal was to improve student performance across the board by increasing expectations early, for decades national test score results (administered at grades 4, 8, 10, and/or 12) have been erratic - uneven at best (1).

If emphasizing academic rigor is not producing the desired results, then the emphasis is misplaced. To successfully manage an academic curriculum, students must possess character traits that support sustainable learning. Because character guides personal conduct, it is a key factor in determining how an individual acts in various situations, including school. With increasing numbers of children struggling with classroom conduct, the time is ripe for a new approach - one that is actually not new at all.

An extensive study published in 2009 by The Alliance for Childhood (3) concluded that kindergarten children should engage in 3 hours of play daily. Yes - 3 hours! The study recognizes that it is through ‘play’ that children learn how to get along. The process may involve arguing, refusing to conform, correcting one another, compromising, etc., all of which help develop important life skills. Children learning from other children is one of the most powerful means of learning. Currently public-school schedules allow kindergarten students approximately 25 minutes daily for recess. Can we be more off the mark?

With lack of self-regulation being a key characteristic of student misbehavior and the recognition that play is the work of childhood, restructuring the lower elementary school curriculum to provide more meaningful forms of play (free, organized, team, imaginative) makes good sense. The step would also allow additional time for children to adequately work through important stages of development at their own rate while engaging in activities that strengthen character and promote self-regulation.

Honesty, patience, kindness, sympathy, perseverance, etc., are character traits that directly impact school and life success. Implementing a curriculum in early elementary school years that emphasizes character development over academic rigor may well result in better behaved children who are able to meaningfully engage in learning that will lead to long-term, sustainable academic success.

Just some thoughts from a passionate educator.

©Sharon Lamberth, May 2024


1.  Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis; Uneven Progress: Trends in Academic Performance Among US School Districts. Oct. 2022 Version (Matheny, Thompson, Townley-Flores, Reardon

2.  Crisis in the Kindergarten – Why Children Need to Play in School by Edward Miller and Joan Almon (2009)



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