Advocates push for more play in the classroom


“Play” may be seen as a bad or disruptive word in a school setting, but many educators are advocating for more play in classrooms, especially for early learners.

“It’s a crisis,” said Katy Smith, an early childhood and parent educator in Winona. “These children don’t know how to interact socially. It’s almost like we have lesson plans on how to interact.”

Research shows that instruction and testing are pushing play out of kindergarten, according to the report “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School” by Edward Miller and Joan Almon, published by the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit partnership of educators, health professionals and other advocates for children, in 2009.

“Kindergarteners are now under intense pressure to meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for first or second grade,” says the report. “These expectations and the policies that result from them have greatly reduced and in some cases obliterated opportunities for imaginative, child-initiated play in kindergarten.”

Smith and others would say that this isn’t only being seen in kindergarten, but also in preschools and upper grades as well. There are opportunities to play in every grade, even high schoolers doing gamification in class is a form of play.

“We all want test scores to be higher,” said Smith. “But play has gotten lost as a strategy for learning and for mental health.”

According to “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” the latest research indicates that, on a typical day, children in all-day kindergartens spend four to six times as much time in literacy and math instruction and taking or preparing for tests (about two to three hours per day) as in free play or “choice time” (30 minutes or less). 

The lack of play is being looked at outside the K-12 school setting as well.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development (ICD) has a lab school and does research on the topic. The Minnesota Children’s Museum also partnered with the University of Minnesota to be a part of a research advisory group on the subject of play.

“Play is about as ‘blueprinted’ a behavior as you can have in terms of basic survival and reproduction,” said professor Stephanie Carlson from the ICD, in a recent article in the College of Education and Human Development’s magazine.

The article shares that Carlson, her colleagues and graduate students are focusing on the cognitive and social functions served by play, especially the development of executive function, commonly understood as the way we learn to control our behavior. In a new study, they documented a phenomenon they dubbed the “Batman effect.” The study shows that in pretend play, children perform cognitively as if they are a full year older. Looking at something from a hero’s perspective, they tend to be more controlled and objective.

“Executive function is the best indicator of achievement in third grade,” said Smith. “And that looks like play in kids.”

Play can easily be integrated into the classroom in a developmentally appropriate way, said Smith.
The “Crisis in the Kindergarten” report said that in a healthy kindergarten, play does not mean “anything goes.” 

“It does not deteriorate into chaos. Nor is play so tightly structured by adults that children are denied the opportunity to learn through their own initiative and exploration. Kindergartners need a balance of child-initiated play in the presence of engaged teachers and more focused experiential learning guided by teachers,” says the report.

Smith and other educators across the state are fighting for the time to play in their classrooms, and more and more, they are winning the battle.

“Educators have the right to advocate for what is developmentally appropriate for the ages of kids they are teaching,” Smith said. “Just like we don’t ask 10th graders to sit in elementary age chairs.”

One of the educators pushing for play at the earliest learning stages is Rebecca Gamache, a home-based Head Start teacher in Duluth.

Gamache was teaching preschool in Superior, Wisconsin, when she first saw the change to a more academic-focused curriculum.

“The children weren’t learning deep foundational concepts, they were learning memorization,” she said. “We were missing out on creativity and curiosity. They are such concrete learners that are adult-learning concepts are abstract to kids.”

Gamache says she understands why the move away from play happened, because it’s easier to collect data on pen and paper tasks. But if you look at child development, we don’t expect that kind of task completion from babies, why should we expect it from preschoolers, she said.

“With an infant, if your goal is to walk or run, you have a progression,” she said. “First they have to discover their arms and legs, then hold their head up, then roll, then crawl, then pull themselves up, then walk, then run. But when they are older and sitting in front of us, we think they can be a reader.”

Gamache is also the regional representative in Northern Minnesota for Play Empowers, a worldwide group that advocates for play. 

“We hear in preschool that kindergarten teachers want self-regulation and social skills,” she said. “Kids learn that in play. They figure it out. Kids need to have a love of learning and curiosity.”

Anna Dutke, a preschool teacher in Prior Lake-Savage, takes play outdoors in her classroom.

“We have a nature-based preschool program. As much as the weather allows, we’re outside,” she said. “It’s not really teacher-driven in terms of the curriculum. Our curriculum comes based on the students interests and what they are learning and talking about outside. We incorporate the early learning standards into that.”

Dutke has six nature preschool classes that fill up in a matter of minutes each year.

“I’ve never seen so much success as when kids just play together outside. There isn’t the materials-focused issues,” she said. “If we come across some spiders, we talk about them and incorporate standards by counting how many they found, what letter sounds you hear in their name.”

And for Dutke, it all comes back to a passion and love of learning that can be discovered through play and the outdoors.

“We want to see kids have a passion and excitement for school, to see and hear them wonder about things,” she said. “They aren’t scared to take guesses about what things are and why they are. It’s still age-appropriate. We want to get kids excited about writing and reading, but it’s not through forced activities.”

Becky Magnuson, a kindergarten teacher in Forest Lake, asked a group of her students to share why they felt play was important.

Their answers included “It is work, but you don’t realize it,” “It helps you make friends,” “It gives you more energy,” “It’s not all about working” and “It is fun!”

Smith, Gamache, Dutke and Magnuson all hope that more educators will advocate for play in their classrooms and help parents advocate as well.

“Play is the equalizer when pre-k is so unequitable,” Smith said. “Kids shouldn’t feel like they are behind on the second day of kindergarten. They should know ‘you are welcome here and you know what to do here.’”