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Education Reporter

Schoolchildren Miss Out on Play
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The Alliance for Childhood, a group based in College Park, Maryland, just released a report on three new studies examining play time in the modern kindergarten classroom. In 268 full-day kindergarten classrooms studied, children spent less than 30 minutes on average in free play or "choice time" each day. Classic play materials such as blocks, sand and water tables, and make-believe props were noticeably absent from the classrooms, a trend that prompted the Alliance for Childhood to describe the course of early childhood education as "increasingly didactic, test-driven, and joyless."

The report, entitled Crisis in the Kindergarten, found that kindergarten classrooms are increasingly regimented and devoted to seatwork activities, such as math worksheets and penmanship practice, which are more developmentally appropriate for older children. Crisis in the Kindergarten even addresses the fact that the trend it documents may especially disadvantage young boys. This report does not address the problems boys face in detail, but other research has found that seatwork activities, which require fine motor skills and a high level of early literacy, are especially inappropriate for young boys, who bloom later on average than girls do in those two areas. Today's overly academic kindergarten "stacks the deck" against many boys, who become frustrated and discouraged by school at the very beginning of their school careers.

Cutting out play appears to disadvantage all children to varying degrees, putting their health, intellectual development, and future success in school at risk. "These practices, which are not grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching," claims the Alliance report. "Many experts believe that developmentally inappropriate expectations and practices are causing normal child behavior to be wrongly labeled as misbehavior, and normal learning patterns to be mislabeled as learning disabilities."

The report recounts researchers' impressions of the preschools they visited as well as the concrete data they gathered. "Most of the activities that are set up in 'choice time' or 'center time,' and are described as play by some teachers, are in fact teacher-directed and involve little or no free play, imagination, or creativity," says Edward Miller, a program director for the Alliance.

Other experts on childhood echo the findings of these studies. Michael Thompson, psychologist and author of The Pressured Child and other books, has reported that 40% of elementary schools now devote less than 20 minutes a day to recess. David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, called the Crisis in the Kindergarten findings "heartbreaking." "We have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make kindergarten a one-size-smaller first grade," Thompson charged. "Why in the world are we trying to teach the elementary curriculum at the early childhood level?"

Robert C. Pianta, the University of Virginia's dean of education, has studied the average child's school day and where the minutes go. According to Pianta, it isn't a rigorous academic day that is squeezing out time for play: students actually spend a full 30% of their school day on classroom management and routines, such as lining up, transitioning between activities, and waiting for teachers to correct other students' behavior. "It becomes clear that time is not well used, whether it's instruction or play," says Pianta. (Education Week, 12-3-08)

The Alliance for Childhood offers six recommendations for policymakers, administrators, teachers, and parents, based on the findings presented in Crisis in the Kindergarten. Interestingly, the recommendations give short shrift to the obvious fact that children can enjoy age-appropriate, imaginative, free play in their own homes, as well as or instead of in center- or school-based "early childhood education" classrooms. State after state continues to consider initiatives such as lowering the age of mandatory education, mandating full-day kindergarten, promoting universal preschool, or promoting center-based daycare through Early Head Start or possibly other "Zero to Five" Obama-endorsed programs. Given the importance of play and the futility of pushing too much "school" too soon on children, lawmakers should respect the home as a wonderful, and in many ways ideal, setting for early childhood education. (www.allianceforchildhood.org)

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