The importance of play in kindergarten

Here’s a clip from today’s New York Times Magazine that I thought might be worth discussing:

…When I was a child, in the increasingly olden days, kindergarten was a place to play. We danced the hokey­pokey, swooned in suspense over Duck, Duck, Gray Duck (that’s what Minnesotans stubbornly call Duck, Duck, Goose) and napped on our mats until the Wake-Up Fairy set us free.

No more. Instead of digging in sandboxes, today’s kindergartners prepare for a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests with cuddly names like Dibels (pronounced “dibbles”), a series of early-literacy measures administered to millions of kids; or toiling over reading curricula like Open Court — which features assessments every six weeks.

According to “Crisis in the Kindergarten” (PDF), a report recently released by the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, all that testing is wasted: it neither predicts nor improves young children’s educational outcomes. More disturbing, along with other academic demands, like assigning homework to 5-year-olds, it is crowding out the one thing that truly is vital to their future success: play.

A survey of 254 teachers in New York and Los Angeles the group commissioned found that kindergartners spent two to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing. “Play at age 5 is of great importance not just to intellectual but emotional, psychological social and spiritual development,” says Edward Miller, the report’s co-author. Play — especially the let’s-pretend, dramatic sort — is how kids develop higher-level thinking, hone their language and social skills, cultivate empathy. It also reduces stress, and that’s a word that should not have to be used in the same sentence as “kindergartner” in the first place…

And, it’s worth noting that Ypsi’s influential educational research group HighScope gets a mention toward the end. Here’s that clip:

…Regardless of the cause, Miller says, accelerating kindergarten is unnecessary: any early advantage fades by fourth grade. “It makes a parent proud to see a child learn to read at age 4, but in terms of what’s really best for the kid, it makes no difference.” For at-risk kids, pushing too soon may backfire. The longitudinal High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study followed 68 such children, who were divided between instruction- and play-based classrooms. While everyone’s I.Q. scores initially rose, by age 15, the former group’s academic achievement plummeted. They were more likely to exhibit emotional problems and spent more time in special education. “Drill and kill,” indeed…


As for me, I like science. I like the idea of having quantifiable data with which to compare the effectiveness of various schools and educational methods. I think, however, that there has to be a middle ground somewhere. Am I alone in thinking that 5 year olds need more than half an hour a day of play?

And, one wonders how much, if at all, this trend toward “teaching to the test” will change now that Bush is out of the White House.

This entry was posted in Education and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted May 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I made a friend in Kindergarten by refusing to believe his stubborn insistance that he was Spiderman, and that he could shoot invisible webs. I won’t pretend there wasn’t a moment of self-doubt or two… he seemed very confident. I would have looked like an idiot if he really was Spiderman.

  2. dragon
    Posted May 3, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    One thing kids like to be is fooled. I remember, once, I told my nephew I was taking him to Disneyworld, but I really took him to a burned down old warehouse. “Oh no,” I said, “Disneyworld has burned down.” He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke.
    Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey

  3. Chelsea
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    I have to say, I’ve never been a big fan of formal education. Not that I have any great alternatives, really. But you asked for our thoughts. Education seems increasingly to follow a business model, and not necessarily a good one.

    I do think, however, that, if you’re going to stick kids in kindergarten, they need to learn about basic nutrition and hygiene and how to interact with other children and adults. So the “old model” probably works better than the one described in that article.

  4. Kripen
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    There’s always homeschooling.

  5. nammeroo
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    …there is, indeed. Don’t say that out loud in mixed company, Kripen. You may offend a MEA member….

  6. Joanne
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I think when I was a kid, you went to school to learn numbers, letters, early reading attempts. I don’t think I had to know all of this before entering kindergarten. But my nieces, when they began school about five plus years ago (they are now 9 and 11), had to take a TEST in order to prove they were ready for kindergarten. They had to know numbers, letters, objects, as well as their parent’s names, addresses, phone numbers, plus other things. Is it too much to expect that kids learn much of that while in kindergarten? I believe this exceleration began when parents began to expect babysitters and childcare places to teach their toddlers and pre-schoolers. Remember when we were kids, you went to the babysitters and played all day? She was usually the teenage daughter of a friend or neighbor; or the older woman down the street; or the neighbor lady who also had kids who threw you out into the yard and told you to go and play outside. When we began expecting them to teach our kids, we also began expecting the kids to know more sooner. I also understand that “No Child Left Behind” has played a large part in kindergarten testing. The results of all of this are that we are teaching to pass tests, cutting out play and physical activities-which aid in obesity rates rising, decreasing socialization through play as well as the mere act of creativity that can evolve through play. Remember when we had time to dream up stories, climb trees, do make believe with friends? They don’t have time for this in school.

  7. roots
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Speaking of being thrown outside to play, which is something I wholeheartedly believe in:

    Has anyone read about Waldkindergartens? (outdoor kindergarten movement)

  8. roots
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink


  9. KateL
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    The thing is, about 40% of people need to be taught reading in a structured way. They need to be explicitly taught the code/decode part, ie:phonics. But there are so many
    curricula out there for phonics that are poorly designed or really dull, that it has gotten a bad name. Most kids in this 40% would do fine with 30 minutes a day of the
    phonics, but some kids need a lot more. Then there are the 60% for whom the coding/decoding is not a big deal to learn, they can pick it up through any number of methods. My kids are dyslexic. They were at a kindergarten that was play based. They could not read at all at the beginning of 2nd grade, and we had to spend a lot of time and huge effort to get them caught up. The supposed purpose of the testing is to screen out the kids who need more structured, intensive instruction early. Because the longer they go without, the bigger the gap they need to leap to catch up to the other kids. That is how it is supposed to work. Sounds like that is not how it is often put into practice. People are so polarized on these “reading wars” issues, that they can’t seem to see the need for play and for excellent structured phonics. You really don’t need to choose between the two.

  10. E. G. Penet
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Science has very little to do with quantities or gathering data. Rather, science is all about play and discovery and working through variations. Playful people make great scientists, which is what attracts the greatest scientists to music. Our greatest thinkers in other professionas are also playful folk. Thought and imagination are developed in play. Going for test results and answers to columns of numbers is not science: it’s drudge.

  11. Brackinald Achery
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    I met a brain surgeon once. He wasn’t very playful.

  12. Dirtgrain
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    You have to open up your skull and let him inside to find out.

  13. Paw
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    You can collect all the data that you want, but there’s no substitute for good teachers in small classes who really get to know their students and understand their unique learning styles. That. however, takes money. Instead, we look for ways to educate on the cheap, like our kids are hogs on factory farm lots.

  14. Paw
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. One wonders what the occasion might have been for BA to meet a brain surgeon.

  15. Curt Waugh
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Paw, it does not cost a ton of money to put good teachers in small classrooms. It costs a ton of money for all the other stuff that’s not that.

    Google “65 percent solution”. Personally, I think 65% is a joke. It should be much higher than that, but The Education Industry must be fed, I suppose.

  16. Posted May 5, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    And this is why our kids go to a charter school that has low class volume and plenty of sensible outdoor time (playing and gardening and walks to look at various creatures). My daughter couldn’t read until 2nd grade. Our soon-to-be 5 year old is right on the cusp of learning to read by his own curiosity and determination. I’m happy with the way both of our kids are developing, and thrilled that our teachers have had the time to cater to their needs.

    I have many friends who are public school teachers and I appreciate the hard work they do in environments that can make it challenging for them to teach the way they’d like to. I also appreciate that they’re not always fond of charter and private schools. However, everyone needs to do what’s best for their children and their family. If the school our kids attend hadn’t proved such a good match, we’d certainly be homeschooling.

  17. Brackinald Achery
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    It’s always a good idea to get routine maintenance, Paw.

  18. roots
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ve yet to meet a charter school teacher who is fairly compensated for his/her efforts.

  19. Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure how they feel about their pay, but many of our charter school teachers have been there a long time and actually look like they enjoy their jobs.
    It’s also an Eastern Michigan University charter school, so perhaps they rank differently than the typical National Heritage Academy-type schools, as far as compensation goes.

  20. Joanne
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of teachers-a week or so ago, a gentleman interviewed on Michigan Radio was discussing the state of the State’s finances and how we need to save money by cutting teacher’s salaries. We are third in the nation for highest salaries and we pay 15% above the average (I think this was it or close.) It was part of Michigan’s “Remaking Michigan” series in April. I’ve never met a teacher in Michigan who thought that they were well paid.

  21. Posted May 5, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never met anyone in any vocation who thought they were well paid.

  22. The Exterminator
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    I think I am more than well paid. After rent and bills, I have a hard time knowing what to spend my extra money on.

  23. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    “It makes a parent proud to see a child learn to read at age 4, but in terms of what’s really best for the kid, it makes no difference.”

    I figure our daughter will learn to read and add, eventually. One thing I figure she’ll learn beyond that by our choice of schools is values. If we say we value, oh, community and decreased consumption but drive her out of town to private or charter school every day, she’ll learn something quite different about relationship between those values and herself and the people around her.

  24. dirtgrain
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I think I’m paid fairly. If we do decide to cut teacher pay, can we cut teacher’s home mortgages and college bills, too?

  25. Posted May 6, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Another huge shift that’s taken place in regards to kindergarten is the switch from half-day to full-day programs. Over the course of a generation most kindergarten programs have changed in this way—I ‘ve subbed in only a handful of schools that still use the half-day format and even they offer parents the option to elect full-day. This program change doubles the school day for these students, so not only are they spending more time in their seats, but they’re spending more time in school period. The amount of time that these little guys are asked to sit still and be quiet in the course of a day is amazing—you can see the frustration in their faces sometimes. Not to mention the fact that school, in and of itself, is often a huge emotional adjustment—half days for a year were once considered a nice way to get your feet wet.
    I read a study about whether this trend helps learning (based on standardized tests taken in 2nd grade) and the result was that all-day kindergarten had no benefit. If adding an entire half-day of learning to the equation causes no benefit, then adding an extra recess or two clearly doesn’t either. You don’t hear about this debate a lot because parents love all-day kindergarten—it was designed for, and keeps them from paying for childcare. If you can rope in a family by offering full-day kindergarten as a cost-cutting measure than you have them (and their state funding) for their entire elementary experience. Its no accident that this trend has gained momentum in a time when the concept of a neighborhood school is in decline. Regardless of what studies might suggest about the correlation between time spent in the classroom and learning benefits, going down to ½ day kindergarten would have a huge impact on student populations and funding in school.
    What no test can measure is what comes from a healthy dose of open-ended play: improved social skills, the ability to empathize with others and problem solve, more focus when students are asked to pay attention, and so on. The behaviors students learn from these situations in kindergarten is more relevant to their participation in our society than academic skills that they will often seek out when they’re ready.

  26. Posted May 6, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    *edit: taking away recesses does not result in any additional benefit
    (not adding)

  27. maryd
    Posted May 10, 2009 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    It is not really about Charter versus Public Kindergarten, but about the philosophy or educational approach of the school/classroom. We know quality varies as much within a school as between them. It is in each individual classroom where the petal is put to the metal that counts. Many administrators and teachers have simply succumbed to this new drill and test philosophy, despite evidence to the contrary.
    A world wide study of preschool children found children spending up to 45 minutes a day in “waiting” activities. That is, not learning but waiting in line, in halls, with their heads down-basically wasted time and opportunity. Trust in play, get outdoors, run and gather dead bugs and cool rocks. Kids learn most by doing, they need this before they move on to standardized testing. Home schooling parents know this and their children do not suffer the many indignities of waiting for the crowd to be “controlled” that is essentially caused by all the waiting.

  28. HalfDayKindergarten
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    The pendulum will swing too late.
    We need to take a stand.
    It needs to happen yesterday already.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Leisa Thompson