Letter to the Editor: The Academics of Play


The Academics of Play

This letter supports the petition (www.ipetitions.com/petition/increase-acps-kindergarten-recessplaytime) to increase recess/playtime in Albemarle County kindergarten classrooms. Currently the Board Handbook, page 20, states: “Elementary students have a total of 30 minutes of recess per day.” The question is not whether or not kindergarten teachers teach playfully. Our kindergarten teachers are masters in this approach. The real question is, what else is sacrificed by severely limiting free play?

The petition asks that board members and administrators recognize that play is a core subject, critical to brain development, not a luxury limited to brief interludes between lessons or merely at the end of a long day. The petition seeks a healthier view of childhood and education by recognizing that free play needs more time, not just some time, as free play is a child’s pursuit in complex cognitive and social problem solving. Many talented kindergarten teachers quietly sneak in extra play time at the beginning of the year but feel compelled to eliminate it by late fall and early winter.

Accountability reaches beyond standardized test scores and includes gains and losses in children’s overall physical and mental health. Play itself won’t solve all of education’s complications, but it is a step in the right direction and begins to right the out-of-balanced ship named SOLs.

Alliance for Childhood (AFC) research finds that children in academic kindergartens have no later academic advantage. In fact they have higher levels of test anxiety, are less creative, and are more negative towards school. Strikingly, by age ten, the children who learned to read at age five have no academic advantage over those who learned to read at age seven. Open-ended free play improves cognitive problem solving and abstract thinking while simultaneously developing socially healthy children. Analysis from the College of William and Mary reveals a severe drop in creativity scores among K-6th grades since 1990, even among the “advanced” students. Why is this occurring during an era of rigor and standards? One reason is that child-initiated free play, which stimulates nerve development and increases brain density, is not considered a core subject by administrators and legislators.

Free play is a child’s stress relief. The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that limited free play and reduced recess is associated with classroom misbehavior, stress, and depression. Beginning kindergarten is now an emotionally and physically fatiguing experience.

Germany and Finland achieve world-class results by embracing the play-based model. A German study comparing 50 play-based kindergartens with 50 academic kindergartens revealed that by age ten, children in play-based kindergartens surpassed those from academic kindergartens. Students were more advanced in reading and mathematics and better adjusted socially and emotionally. They excelled in creativity, intelligence, oral expression, and industry. Thus all German kindergartens became play-based.

Kindergarten teachers express concerns about developmentally inappropriate SOLs and formal reading groups. They mourn the limited free play, sacrificed for the political cult of rigor. Kindergarten children don’t need rigor, they need healthy oral and written language and numeracy experiences. Third grade SOLs will not be diminished if kindergarten teachers are allowed to use their professional knowledge and dismiss inappropriate SOLs, as these standards are re-taught and extended in first and second grade.

We have moved from no kindergarten, to half-day kindergarten, to full-day kindergarten, and now full-day kindergarten with reduced free play. One must begin to pull the brake on this out-of-control train. Kindergarten is not about developing fluent readers. It is about emergent reading and numeracy development. Kindergarten teachers need to be freed from micromanagement so they can be allowed to do what they do best, which is celebrate childhood.


Karen Rubendall

Visit www.ipetitions.com/petition/increase-acps-kindergarten-recessplaytime/ to see the petition.