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Experts say important learning lost when letter drills push out playtime

Kindergarten students at the Children's Community School in Van Nuys play with blocks and random objects during a period of free play. It's part of the school's
Kindergarten students at the Children's Community School in Van Nuys play with blocks and random objects during a period of free play. It's part of the school's "experiential learning" philosophy that prioritizes unstructured play in the curriculum.
Alejandra Palacios
Kindergarten students at the Children's Community School in Van Nuys play with blocks and random objects during a period of free play. It's part of the school's
Students engage in a period of free dance and movement at the Children's Community School in Van Nuys.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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On the floor of the “block room” at the Children’s Community School, rice grains are spread out on two square black mats, like a lush lawn. Popsicle sticks form a roadway. 

These are the remnants of the morning’s storytelling class, where kindergarteners created the countryside from the story they had listened to. They were in a free-form classroom, filled with blocks and random objects that were theirs to pull from and conjure up the story setting.

Storytelling, listening and creative play are a cornerstone of how this Van Nuys private school teaches literacy, according to its director, Neal Wrightson. It even has a full-time storyteller on staff.

“Instead of just sitting kids down at desks with workbooks, we’re talking about telling stories,” he said. “Storytelling has everything to do with ... learning how to read and how to write.”

Each day students get a free period of unstructured play in the block room, following what's known as the “experiential approach” to learning.

“When you’ve just got some boards and some blocks and some open space, what you do is you bring your own ideas,” Wrightson said. “Cognitive scientists to this day talk about the importance of those kinds of experiences, the reinventing of knowledge for the kind of deep and lasting learning that we really value.”

As a private school, Children’s Community School can teach just about any way it wants.

But in public schools, experts said years of emphasis on standardized tests have led to play becoming less and less a part of the school day, even for the littlest kids. And some are worried about what students are losing in the process.

When UCLA researchers asked kindergarten teachers in 2009 how much time they allot to play, almost 80% said less than 30 minutes a day was spent playing. For some, the answer was no time at all. 

Barbara Friedrich, principal of Stanley Mosk elementary school, said for a long time kindergarten everywhere was mostly play-based. But over the past 10 years, academic standards have become more rigorous. Many teachers say the first grade curriculum has been pushed down to kindergarten.  

“We have to assess kindergarten children in ways we never had to before,” she said.

As a result, preschoolers are now expected to learn what kindergarten used to teach – letters and numbers, said Krisna Escobar, Mental Health Services Coordinator of Head Start programs on USC’s campus.

Federally funded programs like Head Start require teachers to provide a lot of data and assessments, she said, not unlike the pressures on public elementary schools.

She said the push for data “often deters teachers [from] implementing the things they already know is important in working with very young children, like play.”

“We want kids to be successful,” said Claudia Sosa-Valderrama, assistant director at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which oversees almost 1,000 Head Start classrooms. “We don’t want them to fail in Kindergarten.”

The focus on academics, she said, is necessary to prevent children from  falling behind in elementary school. Studies show kids who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade seldom catch up to their peers.

It’s not that she frowns on play – she said her agency encourages it – but they also have to look out for standards.

“If we disallow children play at the preschool level and at the kindergarten level essentially we’re going to render them less educable,” said Pasadena-based psychologist Enrico Gnaulati.

In his book, Emotion-Regulating Play Therapy with ADHD Children, he argues play is important for children’s development. He said the current way kids are taught, using methods like letter drilling, are “overly didactic” and come at the expense of other things.

These arguments aren’t exactly new. Play-based learning has been promoted by the Montessori education movement and progressive educators dating back to John Dewey.

What has Gnaulati and some of his peers worried is an increased focus on learning standards that has pushed play out of classrooms for young kids to levels never seen before.

He and others point out that play is crucial for toddlers and preschoolers’ social-emotional development, and without it he believes children will have a harder time with academics.

“To be curious, to listen, to share, to cooperate and to neither implode nor explode emotionally when they’re challenged in social ways,” he said, are all characteristics learned during play which make learning reading and writing in kindergarten easier.