My 1980s kindergarten was decorated with themed bulletin boards. My hair would get caught in the screws that held our plastic desk chairs together. Our teacher, a cheery blonde woman who wore a cliché apple-embroidered denim jumper, would gesture toward the alphabet using a pointer. We’d sing songs complete with coordinating hand motions, have milk and cookies, and then enjoy hours of playing toys and reading books. Let me be clear. Recess was basically all day, every day.
Today, toys are considered best-suited for preschool classrooms. Kindergarten classrooms across the country are void of dollhouses, miniature kitchens and plastic food, and building blocks. Instead there are desks—way too many of them—and screens. Some classes take “brain breaks” where the teacher projects a video encouraging kids to “get the wiggles out” or follow an online instructor in a series of dance moves and yoga poses. Then it’s back to business.
One of my tweens had one—yes, one—recess during her seven-hour kindergarten day. At five years old, she was crammed into a classroom of 26 students, one-third of whom had special needs, and was expected to sit still, be quiet, and learn. Certainly, I’m not blaming our teachers, those who are the saints who take care of and educate our children five long days a week. However, I have some serious questions, like, what has changed since I was a kid? And where are the toys and recesses?
If you ask a teacher, they will offer a myriad of responses. Mandated state testing, academic standards, documentation (so much documentation), rising class sizes, and lack of administrative support has drastically altered what’s expected of the teacher and students. Teachers know what kids need, but they aren’t always at liberty to meet those needs, leaving teachers and students at the mercy of those who aren’t in the classrooms.
Kindergarten was play based for well over 100 years, since the birth of what we know as kindergarten. That changed in the 1960s when academic subjects like reading, math, and science were introduced to students. No Child Left Behind and Common Core standards only amped up the no-time-for-fun-and-games belief in classrooms. From 1998 to 2010, a study found that “the percentage of classrooms with a dramatic play area dropped from nearly 90 percent to 58 percent.”
What’s the problem? Aren’t American kids falling behind other countries in terms of academics? Don’t we need to catch up? Our kids are missing out when the toys are collecting dust in a storage closet, because playing is learning. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “Play is not frivolous: it enhances the brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allows us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”
Read that again. Play leads to greater drive and focus, not less. By revoking play time, both recesses and toys and instead pushing more academic time, we’re reducing our children’s ability to be academically successful.
Let’s not forget that gross motor play, which normally manifests in the school setting in physical education class and recess, provides kids with necessary vision breaks to avoid eye strain. Movements, such as swinging on the monkey bars, can strengthen a child’s hands, improving their ability to write. Chatting with peers gives kids the chance to work on their communication skills. Last, but not least, movement does a body good, helping a child meet their own sensory needs and staying physically fit.
Thankfully, some teachers are creatively working within restrictions to make sure their students aren’t getting clipped down on behavior charts for doing what kids do. Nikki Starbuck, who has taught kindergarten for eighteen years, introduced flexible seating to her students last year, with other teachers in her school following suit. Some of her students dangle their feet off wobble stools, some wiggle on a textured, inflated disk, and some lay on their stomachs on the carpet, using a clipboard to stabilize their work. She told Scary Mommy, “When basic needs are met, children can use their energy and focus on the task I’m giving them.”
With some proactive planning, which includes more play and innovative techniques like flexible seating, children may actually be set up to succeed, improving their ability to do the assigned academic work. Plus, we can teach children to love school and learning—from day one–rather than dread it as something they have to endure for thirteen (plus) years.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that many kids do not learn well via pencil-to-paper. Some children are auditory learners, some are visual learners, and some are tactile learners. The more opportunities they have to move and play, the more opportunities they have to problem-solve and communicate. These are essential life skills.
Yes, there are schools where kids have more opportunities to learn through play, one of which being Montessori. I also have several friends who choose to homeschool their kids, taking part in nature-based curriculum that relies heavily on outdoor exploration and movement. These have their perks, but aren’t options for many parents who don’t have the ability or desire to homeschool or can’t afford the steep private school tuition.
This leaves me and many other parents to not-so-patiently wait for public schools to embrace more play-based kindergarten routines. In the meantime, I’m thankful for the teachers who understand what young kids need and are implementing clever strategies in their classrooms that allow for movement and creativity. I love when my children come home from school worn-out and happy—a sign of a great day at school.
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