Play in Kindergarten: The Battle Between Standards and Developmentally Appropriate Practice
Kindergarten programs in the United States have changed dramatically over time. The expectations for both students and teachers alike continue to evolve and grow, which is alarming when considering the striking changes that have already occurred within kindergarten programs in recent years. Historically, kindergarten programs, typically of children 5–6 years old, acted as children’s first formal educational experience in the United States and focused on play (nonacademic, free choice activities) and the development of children’s foundational skills (Snow, 2012). Although many past programs prioritized children’s social, emotional, and moral development, Russell (2011) discussed in her study on the transformation of kindergarten programs in the United States how kindergarten is structured and viewed differently today. A major focus of this study was how media sources, such as newspapers and television broadcasts, have influenced society’s expectation of 21st century kindergarten programs being focused on serious academic instruction (Russell, 2011). Most recently, Bassok, Latham, and Rorem (2016) studied today’s United States kindergarten programs and found “striking increases” in standardized testing, similar structure of first grade programs, and less time being spent on art, music, science, and play (p. 14). For instance, in Miller and Almon’s (2009) study of the importance of play, they found in a typical day, kindergarten students were spending “four to six times as long being instructed and tested in literacy and math (two to three hours per day)” in comparison to the 30 minutes of free play being offered (p. 3). These collectively changing trends have vividly changed over time and now the challenge is that children are being provided with an education that may not fully meet their developmental needs.
In addition to the changing historical trends in kindergarten programs, Snow (2012) described how there are also very different opportunities for children to learn in today’s public-school kindergarten programs. Some of these trials include: inconsistency in policy (half day vs. full day), various ages of entry (ranging from five to eight years old), and disparities in teacher preparation requirements (each college/university having different requirements) (Snow, 2012). The variations in kindergarten programs lead to additional trials as teachers are already faced with the challenge of balancing developmentally appropriate practices with the high demands of the Common Core standards. When there is inequality among individual kindergarten programs, it creates even more challenges for educators to assure a high-quality program that adheres to the high demands of the standards (Snow, 2012). Such inequities evoke the following question: Are we as society doing a disservice to our children as the academic demands increase, developmental needs are being neglected, and programs do not provide all kindergarten students with the same opportunities?
To further explain these trends of inconsistency and challenges in kindergarten programs, Little and Cohen-Vogel (2016) described in their study of the different viewpoints of kindergarten programs in the United States that both developmentalists and academic advocates both believe kindergarten programs should be child-centered, include hands-on play, and support developmentally appropriate practices. However, their beliefs differ when considering the standards and predetermined skills students should learn. Developmentalists believe there should be no predetermined standards of learning in kindergarten, while academic advocates believe there should be a set of expectations set forth for kindergarten programs (Little & Cohen-Vogel, 2016). This is a clear picture of the ongoing debate present in today’s educational world and the challenges teachers of young children face every day.
Play and Early Childhood Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Development
Social-emotional development and academic learning are closely intertwined and together are both important, developmentally appropriate aspects of a successful kindergarten or early childhood education program (Daunic et al., 2013). During kindergarten, children are developing social skills that are essential for their overall development and well-being. Russell (2011) explained there is much evidence that “teachers increasingly focus on academic skill development” while they “spend less time on traditional developmental domains such as social skills and play” (p. 259). This could lead one to believe that this may be a result of the government mandated Common Core standards, which are “a set of college- and career- ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2018).
Additionally, in their meta-analysis that reviewed 82 different school-based social and emotional learning interventions, Taylor, Oberle, Durlak, and Weissberg (2017) found areas in which SEL interventions led to significant improvements for students, including the following categories: social emotional learning skills, attitudes, positive social behavior, academic performance, conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use. Therefore, it is important to consider the detrimental effects that could potentially occur if time is not spent on social skills and play in kindergarten, such as: lack of social skills, inability to control emotions, and loss of interest in learning as all emphasis is placed on academics (Johnson, 2015).
Overall, play has been found to provide learning opportunities for children to enhance their social skills and learn ways to regulate their emotions (Whitebread & O’Sullivan, 2012). After conducting their follow up study focusing on attention and theory of mind skills, McGlamery and Ball (2008) suggested that teaching social skills and promoting play in a classroom does not need to take focus off of academics, but instead be incorporated into regular academic studies by choosing literature that promotes acceptance, cooperation, and diversity, while also providing guided play activities for students. In guided play the teacher creates activities that promote play and are clearly related to the objectives or standards that need to be taught, so students can benefit both academically and socially in these situations (Johnson, 2015). Johnson (2015) suggested that one way for kindergarten educators to promote the development of social-emotional skills is by providing opportunities for play in the classroom as this leads to authentic, real-life situations for children to interact with others to develop those skills.
Furthermore, while research has found that play in a classroom promotes the authentic development of social and emotional skills, there are also studies that help us understand the long-term effects of proper social-emotional development. For instance, Zinsser, Shewark, Denham, and Curby (2014) explained children learn to be emotionally competent primarily through the social interactions they are exposed to. Play is a primary way that children are exposed to social interaction, which is why young children are especially influenced by these experiences as it sets them up to be successful throughout their school years and lives (Zinsser et al., 2014). In their research on teacher’s beliefs about social-emotional learning, Zinsser et al. (2014) studied teachers and children from various centers in Northern Virginia and found that teachers’ beliefs about emotions are closely related to their own social-emotional teaching practices; meaning most elementary or early childhood educators placed more value on social emotional learning experiences than middle or high school teachers. The aim of this mixed-method study was to combine the quantitative recent teacher emotional support research with the qualitative techniques used in the study. The resulting data revealed contrasting ways in which teachers approach social emotional learning and how educators could benefit children if they are consistent in their support and approaches to SEL. Therefore, promoting SEL opportunities through play on a schoolwide scale can lead to a more meaningful approach for young children to develop these skills.
Play-Based Learning: Building the Case
Play is not always incorporated into kindergarten classrooms due to the expectations of the Common Core standards, yet play can be purposefully included in daily classroom routines by utilizing the play-based learning approach. However, play-based learning is not as common in current classrooms as Kindergarten programs have dramatically changed over time by incorporating much less play than past programs. Since play is declining in current programs, it is vital for educators to take a closer look at the effects play has on an early childhood education experience and what is deemed as developmentally appropriate for kindergarten-aged children to be sure all student needs are being met.
Characteristics of Play-Based Learning
Play-based learning is a way for children to engage in play to make sense of the world around them, while also learning necessary academic and life skills. Firstly, play-based learning gives children the opportunity to develop essential life skills by doing what children do best — play. Lynch (2015) explained one of the important aspects of play when she recognized children’s innate intrinsic motivation to participate in play. Since children are naturally engaged in play, there are various benefits for children as they learn through these play experiences.
Pretend play. One of the ways children experience play is through pretend play, or sometimes referred to as dramatic play (Johnson, 2015). These experiences allow children to re-enact real-life situations that they may or may not have experienced firsthand in their own lives. Pretend play can help children make sense of their world and what their role is in given situations. For instance, while playing in a toy kitchen, children might recognize their role is to cook or be careful not to burn themselves. These pretend play experiences can lead to these children learning meaningful life skills (Lynch, 2015).
Social pretend play. In addition to pretend play as a component of play-based learning, there is a more complex idea, referred to as social pretend play. Social pretend play is when children are simulating real-life situations while socially interacting with one or more other children (Whitebread & O’Sullivan, 2012). The goal of Whitebread and O’Sullivan’s (2012) study of young children’s play in the United States was to consider how social pretend play could potentially support the development of metacognitive and self-regulatory skills in young children. The study reviewed academic literature and studies on the topic of social pretend play and young children and analyzed the literature and studies for some common conclusions. Whitebread and O’Sullivan (2012) found that young children benefited from engaging in social pretend play as it supported their development of both metacognitive and self-regulatory skills by interacting with other children. Sometimes this can be a struggle for some children as they are shy or hesitant to interact or play with their peers. One suggestion from the Whitebread and O’Sullivan (2012) study was for teachers to be involved in children’s social pretend play experiences by encouraging those who are not engaged in social pretend play to participate with their peers.
Guided versus free play. In addition to these specific types of play children can encounter, such as pretend play and social pretend play, there are two different ways to approach play in a classroom. Play can either be guided or free (Johnson, 2015). In guided play the teacher creates activities that promote play and are clearly related to the objectives or standards that need to be taught, so students can benefit both academically and socially in these situations. Contrastingly, free play is when children determine what and how they are going to play (Johnson, 2015). Regardless of which approach is being used, both types of play lead to children becoming “more creative” and “more confident when experimenting with new activities” (Lynch, 2015, p. 347). Therefore, including either type of play can be beneficial to children’s overall development.
Play-Based Learning as Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)
Researchers have found that play-based learning is a way for children to authentically develop many positive social and emotional skills (Lynch, 2015). Because children are naturally inclined to play, play-based learning is important in classrooms (Lynch, 2015). Furthermore, it is different from the type of play children in today’s society are experiencing at home, such as electronic devices and video games (Lynch, 2015). Play in a classroom setting can potentially teach children to share and cooperate with other students, while also teaching children how to effectively communicate with other people. Skills such as sharing, cooperation, and effective communication skills are not the only accomplishments students can make through play. For instance, Johnson (2015), an early childhood scholar, described in his chapter about play pedagogy how free play can lead children to these accomplishments as they “naturally select play activities that will help them to cope and master anxieties and to make progress with developmental tasks of one kind or another” (p. 182). Therefore, an approach such as free play helps young students to develop essential academic and life skills while being taught in a developmentally appropriate way.
While play-based learning promotes the development of essential life skills, it is also viewed as a more developmentally appropriate practice than many of the more academic-driven approaches that are found in many kindergarten classrooms today. Researchers have explored the ways in which some U.S. early childhood teachers view the use of developmentally appropriate practices in their classrooms. According to Hegde, Sugita, Crane-Mitchel, and Averett (2014), teachers’ beliefs of developmentally appropriate practices, such as social-emotional learning and play in kindergarten, aligned closely with a play-based curriculum. Yet most current kindergarten programs are eliminating play and replacing it with academic work (Bassok, Latham, & Rorem, 2016). This is significant as teachers are recognizing the positive effects play and other developmentally appropriate practices have on children, yet the challenge is that current policy and curriculum do not directly support this philosophy.
Although current policy and curriculum structures do not openly support developmentally appropriate practices such as play-based learning, if planned effectively, play-based learning can still be appropriately integrated in many areas of the academic curriculum. Kinzer, Gerhardt, and Coca (2016) reviewed current studies and literature to provide suggested activities for kindergarten teachers to utilize blocks as a way to support the Common Core math standards. When Kinzer, Gerhardt, and Coca (2016) studied how blocks can be used to support Common Core math standards they found support for learning centers that included blocks stating that they allowed children to “play, explore, and informally engage in mathematical ideas” (p. 389). The interaction with blocks in these activities also helped promote children’s overall mathematical development (Kinzer, Gerhardt, & Coca, 2016). Therefore, using blocks and other manipulatives can be an effective way to utilize play in the classroom to enhance everyday academic learning.
Lack of Play in Academics and Accountability
Kindergarten programs are becoming more and more academically focused with the push for accountability and the Common Core standards. With a greater push for academics, less, if any time is being spent promoting play-based activities. These changes led some researchers to considering whether the Common Core standards are too demanding for such young children (Main, 2011). Main (2011) explored this critique by comparing the math Common Core standards to international standards of high achieving countries and using NAEYC’s developmentally appropriate practices. Main (2011) found the standards required “too much too soon” for young children, including kindergarteners (p. 73). The NAEYC and NCTM continue to work on how to better revise the original Common Core math standards so that students are given fair and realistic opportunities (Main, 2011). Overall, some still believe the Common Core standards are unrealistic for our youngest students.
Other research, however, has focused on the opposing idea that kindergarten and young classrooms are ready for the challenge of the Common Core standards (Kramer-Vida, Levitt, & Kelly, 2012). In their study of a yearlong writing professional development project in the United States, Kramer-Vida, Levitt, and Kelly (2012) suggested that kindergarten is “more than ready for the common core” and focused primarily on teachers transforming their own strategies for teaching writing to meet the demands of the Common Core (p. 93). Additionally, Casbergue (2017), an education professor, found ways to support Common Core early literacy expectations by approaching literacy with more “sophistication”, such as promoting deeper learning in alphabetic and phonemic awareness and modeling difficult strategies (p. 647). Furthermore, coming from their work on understanding and implementing Common Core vocabulary standards in U.S. kindergarten programs, Baker, et al. (2015) discussed ways to successfully meet the mandates of the Common Core vocabulary standards at the kindergarten level and provided strategies for teachers to be successful. The strategies included primarily paper and pencil work, with limited guided play through prescribed games (Baker, et al., 2015). Although the collective findings from all of these studies may seem to contradict the use of play, the Common Core standards state: “The use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2018). Therefore, this research encourages teachers to accept the challenge of the Common Core standards by altering their practices, even if they still include play, to support these new and challenging expectations of the Common Core.
Kindergarten programs are caught in the battle between implementing very rigorous Common Core standards, while also trying to promote developmentally appropriate practices that provide positive academic and social experiences. These challenges can pose the question: How can developmentally appropriate practices, such as play, be utilized successfully with limited time that often ends being dedicated to academics? Unfortunately, this phenomenon can be challenging. However, one suggestion is to incorporate more guided play for young students. Johnson (2015), when reviewing the contemporary pedagogy of play in United States programs, described guided play as a strategy when “the teacher deliberately intervenes to improve children’s play or point it in new directions that can assist learning” (p. 182). This might be beneficial in supporting play in the classroom while addressing the Common Core standards, because the teacher has more influence in the play situation than in free play. Furthermore, teachers can promote play and social peer interaction by producing educational and standard-related games or activities that promote the development of social skills while still promoting the standards (Baker et al., 2015). Although this may not completely solve the debate, it may lead educators in the direction of implementing developmentally appropriate practices, even in a world of high accountability.
Additionally, adequate professional training and professional development for teachers is a suggested implication in order for schools to implement both the Common Core standards and play-based learning (Kramer-Vida, Levitt, & Kelly, 2012). When Peterson and Riehl (2016) studied the rhetorics of play in kindergarten programs, they suggested that teacher education programs provide profound information about the ways children interact with materials during play. Furthermore, Main (2011) recommended from her study of the appropriateness of the Common Core math standards that “Cooperation, collaboration, and professional development is needed before we experiment with our children” by immediately implementing the Common Core math standards (p. 76). Lastly, Kramer-Vida, Levitt, and Kelly (2012) identified professional development as the driving change in their study of how to show that kindergarten programs can successfully implement the Common Core writing standards. Together, these researchers suggest our schools could provide adequate professional development for teachers in order for them to effectively teach kindergarten-aged students, using a balance of both developmentally appropriate practices and the Common Core standards.
In conclusion, kindergarten education programs are living in a challenging time as the strategies to implement the Common Core standards are interrupting teachers from fully utilizing developmentally appropriate practices in their classrooms. In order to provide students with the quality education they deserve, teachers must look beyond the accountability of the standards and consider how to incorporate play to support their students’ overall success. In order to make this happen, educators need to consider how they can influence administrative decisions and current policies in relation to kindergarten programs and developmentally appropriate practices (Snow, 2012). One cannot sit on the sidelines and watch these policies unfold when it is known they are not what is best practice for our students. When considering current routines in early childhood education programs, Johnson (2015) suggested, “heightened awareness now exists that indicates it is time to develop and implement a sustainable alternative” (p. 180). Therefore, we must take his advice to do what is best for our students and bring play back into the kindergarten classroom again.
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