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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 03/11/2012

Robbing kindergartners of play in the name of reform

There is no end to the bad ideas advanced in the name of school reform. Here’s one that will ensure that kids learn to hate school even earlier than usual: In Hartford, Conn., the superintendent of schools wants to extend the school year for some kindergartners to 11 months of the year.

And these kids aren’t having a laugh riot at school as it is.

Some kindergartners there go to school from 7:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. — with no time for naps and no time to play, according to this story in The Hartford Courant.

“Play? No. No, no, no. This is no longer the case. Even in pre-K, for us, it’s no longer the case,” Immacula Didier, the principal at Betances Early Reading Lab School was quoted as saying by The Courant.


Kindergarten teacher Cathie Kerr works with her students on the days jobs in Canton, Mich., in January. Updated state rules mean that public schools in Michigan must offer all-day kindergarten to receive full funding for each kindergarten pupil starting in September. (AP Photo/Detroit News, Daniel Mears) (Daniel Mears - AP/Detroit News)

These students are being robbed of opportunities to learn through play that is carefully constructed, which early childhood experts say is the best way for them to develop their social-emotional and academic learning skills.

We used to debate how much academic work is too much for preschoolers and kindergartners to handle at their developmental stage, but over the past dozen years or so that has been increasingly drowned out by the rise of standard- and test-driven accountability.

Now all we hear is about getting kids ready for the rigors of rigor at school (“rigor” being an operative word today in education, even for 5-year-olds). That includes subjecting 5-year-olds to test after test.

Kids who can’t read in kindergarten and certainly by the end of first grade are at risk of being declared laggards. Boys, who generally develop the skills needed to learn to read later than girls, suffer tremendously from this pushdown of curriculum.

Try as they might, school reformers can’t change the course of human evolution. While kids are certainly exposed to more at an earlier age than they were even 20 years ago, their little brains and bodies haven’t evolved along with school reform thinking. They still can’t handle what they couldn’t back then.

Chip Wood, the author of the seminal Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 ,” tells us what we need to know about 5 year olds. They are active and receptive, taking in things through their senses, and they love to play. He writes:

Every location in the classroom and at home appears full of possibilities. And fives know how to get the most out of each possibility for as long as it holds their interest. Play, of course, offers endless potential and is the five-year-old’s primary occupation. The adults may call it something else, like ‘Choice Time,’ but five-year-olds know what they are doing.”

It’s the adults who won’t let them play who don’t know what they are doing.

Since some kindergartners today are 6, let’s look at them: Six-year-olds, Wood says, “take on every activity, at home and at school, with unbridled enthusiasm,” “love jokes, silly songs, and guessing games,” and “love to be outdoors.”

No time for that in many kindergartens today. They have to do their math and literacy work.

Now the superintendent of the Hartford School District, Christina Kishimoto, wants kindergarteners at the district’s lowest performing schools (as measured by standardized test scores) to stay in class for 11 months a year instead of the regular nine, and stay hard at work. That leaves less time than ever for the thing they should be doing the most — playing.

Yes, it is true that many students, especially in high-poverty areas, enter preschool and kindergarten without the same literacy skills as students from middle- and higher-income families, and this puts them at an enormous disadvantage at school. And it is important for schools to learn how to help these students overcome their early literacy deficits.

But there are right ways to do this and wrong ways to do this.

Child development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige has written in this article, “Through play children build the foundation they need to understand the concepts they learn in school, but play offers an even deeper benefit as well. Through play children continually regain their sense of equilibrium which is what allows them to greet learning tasks in school with openness and confidence—to have the emotional and mental readiness to say: I can do this task and I want to do it!”

Insisting that they sit in classrooms doing traditional school work for 11 months a year, without tailoring learning to the way young children learn best is, at best, an exercise in futility.

But that’s today’s school reform for you.

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By  |  12:30 PM ET, 03/11/2012

 
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