Sunday, February 23, 2014

Play and Standards in a Kindergarten Classroom

I have a wonderful grade-level team and we have great conversations about teaching kindergarten every week. It may be funny stories of classroom events, ideas on how to be successful in the classroom, moments of celebration when a child meets a goal, or the sharing of challenges that we have to overcome. It seems lately, there are more stories of challenges than in previous years. This directly relates to the increased pressure on young children to perform at the highest level possible without regard to developmentally appropriate practice or research.

When I first began teaching, the value of play was well-known in kindergarten. Sure, there were already talks about how play was valued much less than previous years. Still, the curriculum was given to me in the expectations that I would use it as needed and in a way that met the needs of my children. My children received more than an hour of unstructured playtime (imaginative, artistic, constructive) each day. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Now, the same curricular constraints are placed on a five-year old as they are on a 12-year old.

In my kindergarten classroom, I am trying to balance reading standards (both from the state and from my district), math standards (again from the state and district), and the emotional and social needs of my children. I need to include 90 minutes of reading and 60 minutes of math with my five and six year old children. Yet, there are numerous studies that show a play rich environment for our kindergarten learners is best, not direct instruction. Students who are pushed at a young age do not achieve more than students who are given a playful kindergarten experience, it is actually the exact opposite (see Alliance for Childhood and NAEYC). Standardized assessments prior to age eight have been proved to be less than 50% accurate (Alliance for Childhood). Each year, the standards for K-12 are increased and the emotional and social needs of the child are proportionately decreased, despite research and facts from real experts (those with a background in education who have taught for more than just a few years as well as those who have completed unbiased research in the area of education). 

How is a teacher that values early childhood education supposed to handle this? I have struggled with this question this school year and I think I am starting to grasp what I need to do if I am going to stay in the classroom. It isn't a big surprise that we need to find balance between what is required and what we know as educators is best for our children. It is heartbreaking that the two are separate, but knowing that early childhood educators were not involved in the creation of the common core standards I know that this is in fact true. I find that I need to focus more on how I can creatively combine standards and the needs of my children. I know the standards are not going away anytime soon, so I must do what I can and stay positive if I want to continue as a teacher.

Providing this balance requires constant effort, more effort than it takes to lesson plan or assess as a teacher would traditionally. It can be overwhelming and disheartening to have to go through this process. The standards are there and I will try my best to help my children meet these standards in a developmentally appropriate way. This includes the use of art, play, inquiry, and guidance to meet standards rather than a day full of direct instruction. The beauty of guidance and inquiry is that it is effortlessly differentiated and meets the needs of all learners.

As I get frustrated and overwhelmed, I find myself doing three things. I rely on my grade-level team and husband to help me make sense of all the standards and requirements that are pushed on our young children. I correspond with educators on Twitter and follow many blogs that keep me thinking of solutions and help me know that I am not alone. I also keep the words of Fred Rogers in my head:"When we treat children's play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that's to be found in the creative spirit. It's the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

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