Putting Play Back into our Preschools and Kindergartens: What Parents Can Do
Tom is the Coordinator of the Iowa Head Start State Collaboration Office with the Iowa Department of Education. His office is responsible for designing various Head Start collaboration initiatives which include T.E.A.C.H., Positive Behavior Support, Head Start-PreK Collaboration, oral health services, promoting equity within early childhood services, expanding inclusive opportunities for children with special needs and leadership in the state’s Early Childhood Advisory Committee.
He is currently the treasurer of the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children and has served the state affiliate board for more than a decade. He also served on the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Tom has a BS in Speech from Northwestern University and an MBA from the University of Iowa and is working on a PhD from Kent State University.
Assess play in your child’s kindergarten or preschool
Volunteer in the classroom to see how students are spending their time.
Advocate to put more play back into classroom
Talk with other parents: How important is play to them? What do they think about the amount of time children have to play?
Ask teachers for copies of learning standards. Ask them what kinds of activities you can do at home to promote your child’s development in these areas.
Cultivate a better understanding of child-directed, open-ended play
Collect materials that can foster open-ended play, including egg cartons, margarine containers, buttons, etc.
Present these as “playthings” and see what happens. (Sorting, stacking, etc.)
Avoid the temptation of correcting choices made. Instead, if you must or have to intervene, ask questions: “What would happen if….” “Can you make this happen?”
Are your children playing in school? Sure there’s recess, but do they have opportunities for child-directed, open-ended play? Child-directed means play where the child determines what to do. Open-ended means that the play lends itself to improvisation. Child-directed, open-ended play is play that is fun, and without an obvious purpose or a specific outcome. Are your children allowed to do that in their preschool or kindergarten classrooms?
If not, what can you do about it?
First, let’s be clear why such play is so important for children’s development.
A recent clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that play stimulates healthy brain development, is associated with lower stress responses, and supports language, math, and social skills.
Outdoor play with vigorous movement can promote healthy weight and cardiovascular fitness. Aren’t these things we want for children in early childhood classrooms? When children are not allowed to play, we deny them development and learning.
So why would schools limit children from pursuing play to boost their creativity and improve their learning? Schools and the broader educational system have adopted academic standards that describe what children should know and be able to do at certain ages or at the end of certain grades. For a variety of reasons, i.e. government funding, schools are hyper-focused on meeting certain levels of standardized testing. Measured by standardized achievement tests, children’s reading, math, and science abilities are reported to the public.
But this is not the way it has to be. Teachers can allow children to play and still pay attention to how well they are learning against a standards-based assessment process. Here’s why: First, when I say that children should play during school, that does not mean there can’t be time for teacher-directed activities where new content is introduced and targeted skills are addressed. Second, child-directed play does not mean anything goes. Teachers can modify child-directed, open-ended play experiences to better assess children, provide chances to practice new skills, and provide experiences that enhance learning. Third, teachers can use a play-based learning approach to aid in discovery, investigation, and program-solving.
Here are three suggestions on how parents can help teachers incorporate play-based learning in their lessons:
Understand how much time is actually provided to children for open-ended play and respond appropriately. Ask your child’s teacher for a copy of their daily schedule. Look for how much time is truly “child-directed.” If less than a quarter of the day is dedicated to children engaged in activities on their own, consider raising the issue with the teacher.
Advocate to put more play back into classroom. Find out what kind of activities the school considers more important than child-directed, open-ended play. Be prepared to address that in a conversation with the teacher or principal. Respectfully, and with an open-mind, explore with them possibilities for making adjustments to the schedule.
Cultivate a love for deeper and richer play with your children at home. Practice what you preach. Make sure your children have space and time and simple materials for open-ended play. Watch your children play. Praise them on creative play and show interest and excitement in what they have created or in a dramatic play event. Play with them, adding your own contributions and modeling the characteristics of deeper play. Let them get bored without screens to fall back on. Boredom means they are on the verge of creative play.
Lastly, read up on why play is an important part of child development. Here are two useful articles: