Rethinking Pre-K and Kindergarten Education

May 28, 2009

On Thursday, May 28, The Forum partnered with the Alliance for Childhood to convene a panel of experts defining developmentally appropriate early learning. Forum Convener Deborah Meier facilitated the discussion with Joan Almon of the Alliance.

Panelists used the Alliance’s recent report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, as a springboard for the discussion. One of the most striking findings was that kindergartners in the study spent between four and seven times the minutes in direct math and literacy instruction daily than in play time.

Based on the study of kindergartens in two cities and responses from teachers around the country, Almon said, “We know that this is the new pattern: That play and playful learning have been more or less pushed out the window and long hours of direct instruction, including scripted teaching, have come in the place of that.” 

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff of the University of Delaware said her research showed playful learning fostered the skills children need to succeed in the rapidly changing world of school, work and globalization.  “Playful learning fosters collaboration, communication content mastery, critical thinking and creative innovation,” she said. “And the skills learned from play correlate better than IQ to later learning.”

Noting that one in four Los Angeles teachers reported no time for play, Ed Miller of the Alliance said that many teachers misunderstood the link between play and learning. He added that standards for early education tended to be very academically oriented and failed to mention play, and that more research and teacher training were needed to begin changing attitudes.

Miller also highlighted the emphasis on standardized testing and test prep for young children that was filtering into preschools from the early grades and kindergartens.

So when Deborah Meier turned to thoughts on federal policy, eliminating standardized tests from early childhood education was first on her list of recommendations.

“There’s this false idea that it isn’t rigorous if there’s no testing,” she said. “But those tests really are not valid for very young children.”

Meier also stressed the need for research that looks at learning outcomes beyond third grade and the importance of building parental involvement into schools.

To illustrate the benefits of playful learning and how it plays out in classrooms, Yvonne Smith of Central Park East elementary described a classroom where she built her teaching on the students’ interests and taught them how to discover answers for themselves.

The basis of working with young children and all people is an absolute trust and respect for their ability as thinkers and learners, and in their ability to make knowledge through their own activity,” Smith said. “And much of that activity is in their play.”

Since the Obama administration and Congress have placed a high priority on improving access and quality in early learning, it’s important that we replicate the right things” said Forum Policy and Outreach Director Beth Glenn. “A focus on supporting inquiry-based learning that is developmentally appropriate – which for young children means play – can improve learning in early childhood as well as in the elementary grades.”

The briefing was part of a series of discussions the Forum sponsors throughout the year on strengthening teaching and learning.

To see a Windows Media video of this event, click here.  For MP3, click here.