Young Children Thrive in a Play-Based Environment
By Allison Schaefer
As I prepared my pre-kindergarten students for their kindergarten journey ahead, I tried to make it sound fun and full of excitement. “Will they have a dramatic play center? Will there be blocks? What about painting?” Sadly, I had to answer no to all these questions. “How long will recess be?” “20 minutes,” I said. Ja’Mya burst into tears. She wasn’t excited to go to kindergarten. She was nervous and scared, saying, “I don’t want to go to kindergarten! I want to stay in pre-k forever!”
Ja’Mya was in my play-based pre-kindergarten program in a PreK-8th grade elementary school that serves 97% low-income families. Ja’Mya’s days were filled with reading stories, playing outdoors, building with blocks and Magna-tiles, painting, and acting out dramatic play scenarios all while I was infusing core math and reading curriculum into her play. Play-based learning was supported by my administration at the pre-kindergarten level because “it was preschool after all.” I was given a sizable budget to order materials and had all the necessary furniture to create a play-based learning environment. However, the same could not be said for kindergarten at my school, which was much more focused on academics. Children had only 20 minutes for play at recess, rather than the minimum of 60 minutes in PreK, and teachers had no budget for play materials; only worksheets and direct instruction.
In the fall of 2022, I began teaching kindergarten in a much wealthier district. The kindergarten program in my new school was developmentally appropriate and play-based, with support from administration and the community, as well as funding for all the necessary materials. My students were able to develop executive functioning and social-emotional skills, like self-control, attention-focusing, and perseverance during their play-based experience. Learning activities, such as observing life cycles while raising butterflies or journaling about the weekend, were set up during play daily to intentionally target specific learning goals. Behavior problems were at a minimum.
As I worked with the children, I began to reflect on what I knew about kindergarten from my former school. There, I saw an elevated amount of behavior problems, including physical violence, eloping, and aggressive outbursts, which were being met with consequences such as sitting out at recess, which was the students’ only time for play during the day. Because there was no play whatsoever, the children didn’t have the opportunity to strengthen their executive functioning or social emotional skills.
Research shows executive functioning skills only develop when students have the opportunity to engage in play. Why is it that these kindergarten students, one hour away from my former school, get to have play-based experiences in their public school? Why can’t all Illinois kindergartners have access to play-based learning?
To ensure the quality of play-based kindergarten programs, Illinois should require training and coaching on best practices for all administrators and kindergarten teachers. If administrators are trained, they will be better equipped to support teachers. The training should be led by experts on play and teachers with experience facilitating play-based learning. It should also include a coaching component that provides in-classroom, real-time coaching support for both the teachers and administrators.
The Kindergarten Individual Readiness Survey (KIDS) tool is a mandated, developmental readiness assessment based on observations during meaningful, play-based interactions for students entering kindergarten. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) provides coaches to support kindergarten teachers by facilitating high-quality practice through the KIDS assessment. This program, although available for all Illinois schools with kindergarten programs, is not being used to its full potential.
The new HB2396 Full Day Kindergarten bill includes language that states, “The full day kindergarten should be developmentally appropriate and provide opportunities for play-based learning.” I am encouraged that this language was included to demonstrate the need for developmentally appropriate practice.
To make play-based learning in kindergarten a reality for all Illinois students, each district should prioritize materials for classrooms that inspire, support, and facilitate play in a way that fosters the whole child’s development. Examples of such materials include wooden blocks, art materials for creation and fine motor development, and dramatic play materials. Providing teachers with these materials would allow them to create a developmentally appropriate play-based environment.
A developmentally appropriate, play-based environment would bring excitement for students like Ja’Mya when thinking about going to kindergarten: an environment in which all 5- to 6-year-olds would thrive while developing the social-emotional, executive functioning, and academic skills needed for a successful 21st century learner.
Allison Schaefer is a National Board-Certified kindergarten teacher at Greeley Elementary School in Winnetka and a 2022–2023 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Policy Fellow.