Early childhood education - KaBOOM! News

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama made the case for expanding access to high-quality preschool opportunities, arguing that “in states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children… studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”

We know that already, but the question lingers: What does “high-quality” mean? Does a high-quality preschool look like this?

Or like this?

Manhattan mother Nicole Imprescia would likely argue the former—in 2011, she sued her child's preschool because, in her words, "The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom." Imprescia worried that all this play was ruining her tot's chances of getting into an Ivy League college.

Meanwhile, many early childhood educators emphatically believe that preschool should be one big playroom—and don’t forget about an adjoining outdoor playspace!  A recent study by Oregon State University found that the key social and behavioral skills that play develops -- such as paying attention and persisting with a task -- are better predictors of whether or not a child completes college than his or her academic abilities.

Educators like Nancy Carlsson Paige worry that policy mandates, like the Common Core state standards, are already squeezing play out of the preschool curriculum by “causing a pushdown of academic skills to 3, 4 and 5 year olds that used to be associated with first-graders through third-graders.”

A teacher in a Brooklyn kindergarten that has adopted the Common Core standards told The New York Post they are “causing a lot of anxiety.” After watching three different children break down sobbing in the course of one week, the teacher said, “Kindergarten should be happy and playful. It should be art and dancing and singing and learning how to take turns. Instead, it’s frustrating and disheartening.”

Washington Post guest columnist Deborah Kenny wonders if the problem is inherent in standards themselves or in how they are implemented. She points to one teacher who taught his kindergarteners “gravity, anatomy, speed, addition and subtraction, and measurement,” which are all included in the Common Core standards, by building a “life-size paper model of how humans would need to be designed in order to fly.”

Either way, Kenny argues that the “right curriculum for kindergarten” is, without a doubt, play. As we begin to invest more in “high-quality” early childhood education, let’s make sure that “quality” doesn’t mean filling out worksheets at a desk. We know that parents like Imprescia just want what’s best for their children. Let’s listen to the research and make sure that “quality” includes copious amounts of active, creative, sensory, and social play—in the mud and beyond. 

What does a quality preschool mean to you?

Top photo via iStockphoto. Bottom photo via Shawn Perez (cc).

Some say play is frivolous. Jill Mays, an occupational therapist, knows perhaps better than anyone why—and how—play is absolutely critical to children's learning, development, and emotional well-being. We think one of her former patients would agree. Read on:

I first met Jack when he was in preschool and worked with him for several years. A chubby blonde who was happiest curled up on the couch and browsing books about lighthouses, Jack had trouble with everyday activities, like getting dressed. When there was a lot of noise or activity, he became easily overwhelmed and would shut down almost entirely, unable to say or do anything.

Jack had sensory processing disorder and a learning disability. ‘Sensory processing’ refers to our ability to determine what sensory information to pay attention to and then how to handle and react to it. For most people, this process takes place on a largely unconscious level and in milliseconds. Our brains are amazing things! 

Movement is critical for activating this system, but with low core strength and poor coordination, Jack fatigued quickly. Our work initially focused on strengthening and building his endurance. As Jack moved into first grade, the emphasis shifted to coordinating his body movements. By the middle of first grade, he reached a tipping point when he learned to “pump” on a swing. At recess, Jack would charge out to the playground, making sure he reached the swings before his classmates. His teacher had never seen him run before.  Jack spent the entire recess swinging.   

His motor abilities grew exponentially from that point on. Not only that, his teacher noted that his recess swing sessions helped him focus better in the classroom and improved his learning. Many years later, I read in the local newspaper that Jack was on the high school varsity football team! From the day I met him, he had progressed from a lone couch potato to a lone swing enthusiast to a team player in a physically demanding sport—a moving testament to the power of play.

This story is adapted from an excerpt in Your Child’s Motor Development Story by Jill H. Mays. See Jill's other guest post, In the wake of tragedy, six tips for coping through play.

Recess periods are shrinking. Homework is increasing. Tag, soccer, and even running are getting banned on the schoolyard. Cities are building new schools without playgrounds.

Most kids aren't getting enough space and time to play during the school day, despite countless studies proving that play is vital to children's learning and health. Here are 5 reasons we need to save play in our schools:


  1. Since 1990, American creativity scores have been falling, attributed in part to the lack of "creativity development" in our schools. At the same time, an IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one "leadership competency" of the future.
  2. Children in Finnish elementary schools—who get an average of 75 minutes of recess a day—consistently rank higher than U.S. children in International Student Assessment Scores.
  3. Two reviews of more than 180 homework studies reveal very little correlation between the amount of homework and achievement in elementary school.
  4. The decline of play is closely linked to childhood obesity; ADHD; behavioral problems; and stunted social, cognitive, and creative development.
  5. Increased physical activity during the school day can help children's attention, classroom behavior, and achievement test scores.

Join us to defend our children's right to play by signing a Back-to-School Pledge!

When you sign, we'll get you started with a PDF copy of How to Save Play at Your School -- featuring 15 action ideas for teachers and parents to make school grounds and school days more playful.


As Teacher Appreciation Week draws to a close, we present our final installment of “Teacher talk,” focusing on the benefits of dramatic play. We all know kids love to assume "pretend" roles, but what you may not know is how important this type of play is to a child’s education and development.

As the Alliance for Childhood reports in Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School:

"Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking."

Here, teachers talk about dramatic play and its place in the classroom:

“After presenting a formal lesson with interaction, I set up centers throughout the room where the children can play in small groups. They have the chance to expand on the ideas through communication, drama and hands-on experiences. When we regroup in the afternoon, I encourage them to share what they did with their friends during free play. Some of the ideas they come up with are amazing.”
- Jeanne Berger, Maryland

“Recently, a group of our children have developed an interest in airplanes. We provided them with dramatic play materials—suitcases, costumes, things to pack, maps—to give them a chance to act out their stories. We surveyed them about the number of students who have flown on planes, and found their destinations on maps. We helped the kids make passports, practicing writing, reading, and fine motor skills, and then set up an airplane on which they "flew" to France, where they enjoyed a French snack, heard the French language, and viewed a slideshow from a teacher's recent trip to France! By taking the themes we saw in their play, and supporting the concepts with materials, projects, and activities that fostered the development of a variety of skills, we utilized play opportunities as growth opportunities.”
- Emily Doll, Pennsylvania

“I allow my students the freedom to explore and interpret the classroom resources however they want. We recently had a student use the puppet theatre as a French Fry Truck, complete with ketchup, salt, and a list of items for sale etc. It was very creative and the other students jumped right in to help expand the play by becoming enthusiastic patrons!”
- Brenda Cooper, Ontario (Canada)

“When my students have free play it's as if they become someone new. They are able to be whoever they want to be through dramatic play and practice their new vocabulary with no judgments. I join them and do whatever they want me to, from being a patient to being a baby or acting as a table to hold their food for dinner. My students learn their identity, their strength, how to have relationships with people outside of their family, how to solve a problem and how not to give up.”
- Tamica Reynolds, Pennsylvania

“Play is in everything that is important in our classroom. During work time, a small group of girls discovered a stack of lunch trays and decided to work with the playdough. At some point someone decided to use the playdough and cutters to make a bakery. More children got involved with the process of making the baked goods and they all ended in the House Area when someone suggested putting the trays in the oven. To their surprise, the trays fit. It was a great event to witness, especially when they all started in separate small groups and ended up working together.”
- Carmen Romero, Michigan

“I teach full-day kindergarten to targeted at-risk kids. There is no way I could maintain their attention nor maximize skill practice without play. I wish more elementary educators and administrators understood that. I integrate subjects into my play centers. One grocery store dramatic play center can hit every core subject at each child's own learning level.”
- Kristen Cawley, Utah

Previous installments:

In our third installment of “Teacher talk,” which pays tribute to playful teachers across the country during Teacher Appreciation Week, we turn our attention to the importance of outdoor play. Play is vital in the classroom, but it’s only outdoors that children get the freedom and space to jump, wriggle, shout, and do all those things that kids are born to do. Plus, the natural world—whether in the form of trees, sand, or puddles—presents unique sensory and learning opportunities.

Here, teachers reflect on why they make sure to get their students outside:

“We try to remember that any activity you can do inside (painting, building, making music, reading and writing), you can also do outside. Along with that, we try to bring the outside (nature) into the classroom whenever possible (snow in the sensory table, painting with leaves, etc.). We know that play leads to discoveries about ourselves, our language and the world around us. Play opens doors to everything wonderful.”
- Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, New York

“Through outdoor play, my students learn to take acceptable risks and push themselves to try new things. This experience carries over into all academic areas, where challenges are met with an ‘I think I can’ attitude and new academic material is seen as something they are capable of tackling.”
- Rebecca O'Hagan, Washington

“Play seems to be becoming a lost art in today's world of children. However, as an educator of pre-service early childhood teachers I am sure to prioritize the importance of play in the life of a child. Open-ended materials in nature is one of my favorite modes of play to introduce! Lots of opportunities for risk-taking, team-building and creative dramatics can take place outside in nature. Get the children outside, give them room to get dirty, explore and discover a world where we are not fenced in by time.”
- Jennifer Koel, Wisconsin

“Our students play outside every day for an hour or so, rain or shine. We have rain gear to keep us dry and comfortable in any weather. The children love a chance to explore the seasons and nature in such a direct way.”
- Karen Smith, Georgia

“We are an urban school that is lucky enough to have open space, including woods. Our Nursery and Kindergarten children spend at least an hour of the school day in nature each day, regardless of weather. Children always have proper gear to go out and experience nature every day. Our festival life in the school revolves around nature and celebrates it.”
- Lisa Bechmann, Maryland

“Our children learn that their bodies can do different things on the outside equipment. They take risks, build confidence, and occasionally hurt themselves—for example missing a bar on the monkey bars and falling to the ground. As they continue to take on new challenges, grow in confidence, develop greater coordination, and seek independent and group play times, we remember to ask them what's working in their play and what's not working.”
- Shawn Bryant, California

Tomorrow: Teachers talk about the benefits of dramatic play.

Previous installments:

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we are recognizing teachers who understand the value of play, and who advocate for play opportunities both inside and outside the classroom. Yesterday, teachers discussed how eliminating play in favor of academics does not facilitate greater learning, and the many ways in which play and learning go hand in hand.

Today, teachers talk about how play helps children make sense of the world by facilitating hands-on discovery and exploration:

“Children need to play every day! My kids have time every day to invent, explore, discover, and play around topics they choose and are interested in. I set up my ‘Explore’ time with materials that interest my students and give them time to play together while learning new things. We also play in science, outside, in math and in literacy. Play is a child's work!”
- Katie Keier, Virginia

“My students investigate their thoughts and ideas with purposefully placed materials. I set up a classroom where the environment is the teacher. The materials I provide stimulate questions, activities, and life skills for children. The children are able to ‘play’ all day in my room and yet learn more than they ever would in an ‘academic’ environment!”
- Stefanie Penland, Maryland

“As a preschool teacher I enjoy watching the wonder of discovery through play. I will often set out materials that we have used in a lesson for children to have ‘free play’ with. To see what they create and share and explore is always amazing and almost always new and different than before.”
- Amy Alves, California

“I love watching as my daycare children discover how something works while during play.”
- Terri Montgomery, Minnesota

“My preschoolers learn through play by experimenting with the environment and different materials. This week we are exploring the effects of wind by making sailboats and floating them in our water table while we use a fan to create wind.”
- Heidi Woltemath, Michigan

“My kindergarten students get over an hour of free play every day; I plan the rest of our day around this sacred time. I teach in French immersion, and play time is when new vocabulary, phrases, and sentence structures become REAL for my students. I hear them trying out new words and linking ideas together in the course of their play, and I know that their language skills would suffer if their entire day was consumed with "structured" activities.”
- Amy Murray, Alberta (Canada)

“Play is children's work and to take that important process of discovery away from them is to crush their sense of wonder and exploration. We want to create life-long learners and play is the first step!”
- Danielle Niermann, Illinois

“In our recent ‘Weather’ unit, the children helped make a tornado in a bottle. They voted on the color, measured the water, poured it through funnels and with practice learned how to swirl the bottle to form a tornado. This one easy activity incorporated social studies, math and science—while the four-year-olds just thought it was a blast!”
- Donna Perry, Connecticut

Tomorrow: Teachers talk about the importance of play outdoors during the school day.

Previous installments:

Play is under attack in our nation’s schools. Not only are more and more school districts reducing or eliminating recess to make more time for classroom instruction, but increased testing pressures are forcing teachers to forego the rich learning opportunities that play presents, both inside and outside the classroom.  The notion that “play” and “academics” aren’t compatible is becoming increasingly common. Parents deem play “frivolous,” believing that academics set the stage for their children's future success.

However, most teachers intuitively understand the value of play and aren’t at all happy about the sterile, uninspired learning environments that emerge when kids don’t get enough of it. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we surveyed hundreds of educators across the country to get their thoughts on how children learn through play. Here’s what they had to say:

“While at recess, the students learn to cooperate with each other. They learn about personal space and work on coordination (running, hopping, swinging). In the classroom, during free choice time they learn about decision making and work on many different skills, such as counting coins at the store center, measuring at the kitchen center, or building interest in science at the discovery center. Formal learning is important, but getting to practice those skills in a non-academic way gets students to love the journey of learning.”
- Linda Stoffan, New Mexico

“This is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to parents when asked repeatedly, ‘Why do the children play so much?’: ‘ Play helps children master all developmental needs. Add that to the guidance of a supportive and responsive teacher, and play in the classroom isn’t merely play, but rather a rich learning experience where children are able to put their thoughts, ideas and feelings into action. Our class does spend valuable time engaged in play. That time is rich in language, ideas, concepts and social and emotional development.’ ”
- Amber King, Virginia

“Play is an integral part of learning. It is so sad to walk into a room of preschoolers or toddlers and see them sitting with flash cards, being shown and forced to sit. Children learn through hands-on, developmentally appropriate activities, and through their free play that allows them to expand their imagination and creative abilities.”
- John Skelly, Florida

“According to Maria Montessori, children's work is play. Through play, children learn who they are and who they want to be. Play provides children with opportunities to develop important skills such as how to make and be friends and how to solve problems. Through play, children construct knowledge about the world and their unique place in it. Without play, there would be no joy, and no reason to explore and learn.”
- Marjorie Jennings, California

“High expectations and state standards put a lot of pressure on the students of today. I try to remember that they are kids! Kids need movement and time to socialize with their peers ... the lessons learned during play are essential for their development as well-rounded, well-adjusted adults and lifelong learners.”
- Dana Verhoff, Washington

“Children experience the world through play. Play is the wellspring of life! Asking a young child to sit down and learn goes against everything their brain and body are designed to do to learn about the world. All the testing in the world will not change anything unless the doors open and children go out and play for the movement provides the basis for speech, writing and reading. Without it, we will continue to have all sorts of ‘learning disabilities,’ which boil down to play deficit.”
- Lisa Boisvert Mackenzie, Vermont

“Children come alive and learn when given the opportunity to play! All the learning activities I plan are play-based. I've found I can teach any concept when introduced through play. It saddens my heart that opportunities to play are being removed and restricted by those who think academic standards are best served by pushing down curriculum for our youngest citizens. Increased expectations for standardized tests and assessments only serve to place more stress on already stressed children who need and deserve a childhood in which to play.”
- Deborah Grace, Indiana

“Play is the purest expression of joy. What better way to learn is there?”
- Elizabeth Slagg, Florida

Tomorrow: Teachers talk about how play facilitates discovery and exploration!

A concerned parent recently emailed KaBOOM! to express her utter shock upon discovering that her son's new school has no recess. And sadly, it's not the only one. Parents across the country are learning that their children's recess periods have either been drastically scaled back or slashed altogether.

While some administrators seem to think that it's acceptable to deprive students of the only time they have during the school day to engage in unstructured free play, parents are up in arms. They intuitively sense of the importance of giving their kids a break and are stunned that school officials seem to lack such common sense.

In his recent Huffington Post piece, Don't Let Recess Die! Six Ways to Save Recess at Your Child's School, our CEO Darell Hammond asserts:

Increased emphasis on high-stakes testing is often to blame, despite overwhelming evidence that more physical activity actually increases focus inside the classroom and can lead to higher test scores. The fact is, a school day with no play isn't going to make your child smarter, and not only that, it's dangerous to your child's health.

He provides tools and resources that concerned parents can use to lengthen or reinstate their child's recess period. If you are one of these parents, don't just wring your hands. It's time to take action!

Other Huffington Post pieces by Darell Hammond: