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Kindergarten teachers try to put play back in the classroom

Hmmmm. Play is considered important for young children--in China.


SAN ANTONIO - Local kindergarten teacher Joanna Bacon leads workshops designed to teach sounding out words, understanding patterns and relating a cause to an effect in a playful manner.

Ten years ago, such a workshop would have been about play and little else.

Decades of early childhood research helped establish kindergarten classrooms that emphasized social activities, stretching children's imaginations, and a joyful transition to school - in essence, learning through play.

Today, however, pressure from parents, an emphasis on early academics, and concern that easing children into the rigors of schooling suits middle class kids better than their less affluent peers have led some educators to see play as a luxury.

Fantasy play, where children learn to problem-solve, empathize and ask "what if?" is being lost along with free play, especially recess, in the race to teach reading at a younger age.

And these changes are happening despite overwhelming evidence that children need movement and a break from structure.

"We've taken away the strengths children bring to kindergarten - wonder, imagination, the opportunity to participate in other children's dramatic play, to share ideas in the drama - you can't share ideas on the new math or the sounds of letters," said teacher and author Vivian Gussin Paley, who argues that all children, regardless of income or experience, possess amazing imaginations, an innate ability teachers can build on through play.

Even backers of direct instruction say good teaching is playful teaching.

And educators across the board agree that, too often, strapped teachers turn to drills and worksheets to impart specific skills.

"We're losing the child," said Frances Stott, vice president and dean of academic programs at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school named after child development expert Erik Erikson.

"We're forgetting about what excites them and helps them learn and what their social and emotional and cognitive agenda is."

But overseeing a classroom where students acquire new skills through play requires superhuman intensity, multitasking, creativity and good humor on the part of teachers, some of whom, like their charges, need a nap when the school day is done.

"I'm just pushing so hard," said Park Village Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jennifer Felty, whose classroom is a whirlwind of themes, activities punctuated by song and dance, and hands-on projects, including a butterfly garden. "I try to watch my little ones. I know I'm going to read to them, but they need to wiggle first."

Playful learning is most likely to happen in "centers," colorful stations scattered around the classroom through which children rotate and explore new activities set out daily by the teacher. "Learning doesn't happen when the teacher just hands out knowledge, but knowledge develops when we create a setting and say to a group of kids, 'Let's work this out,'" said the Erickson Institute's Gillian McNamee, a professor of child development and director of teacher training. "That's when kids are really reworking concepts and can explain things to each other."

At Herff Elementary School, one little boy pointed to the activity in his center, which called on him to match lower case and upper case letters using a clothes pin.

He put his head down on his desk and said: "I'm not good at this," then added, "It's my birthday."

Some teachers face hurdles unrelated to teaching strategies, ranging from a difficult principal to unsupportive parents or unpredictable student enrollment.

For example, Joan Austin, a veteran teacher in the San Antonio Independent School District was unexpectedly moved from third grade to kindergarten because of a bump in enrollment.

Although she knows how to create exciting centers, she relied heavily on activities provided by her district as she adapted to her new assignment.

The district is actively training teachers to design activities that allow children to succeed at different levels, said Jennifer Martinez, an early childhood education teacher specialist.

Keeping groups small at the beginning of the year - Austin's students were working in groups of two, smaller than most experts recommend - is usually a method for managing behavior problems, she added.

"We the teachers know what the children need, hands-on activities, choices, fun and problem-solving. Between the feds and the state, somewhere, lies the problem," said Gladys Cosio-Burger, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Herff.

Experts say a young child's day must be broken up by
movement, including some where the child can move however he likes.

Nonetheless, new pressure to teach academics has made recess vulnerable.

Noting that schools in the San Antonio Independent School District are devoting extra time to reading instruction and beefing up its kindergarten math and science, Jeanne Cantu, director of elementary reading and language arts, said: "I think it's great if you could get a recess. I don't know if it's essential."

"That is wrongheaded," said Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, noting that he had just returned from a trip to China where he observed 5-year-olds given 15 minutes every hour to go outside and play, and where he said the kids just "exploded" after 45 minutes of working inside

— Jeanne Russell
San Antonio Express-News


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