Most kindergartens are already highly focused on raising and testing children’s literacy and math skills. The Alliance for Childhood’s 2009 research report, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, found that kindergarten teachers spend two to three hours per day teaching literacy and math and testing or preparing children for tests. The Core Standards’ narrow focus on these two subjects will almost certainly lead to even greater emphasis on them at the expense of other crucial areas of young children’s learning and development.
The push to raise children’s cognitive skills in kindergarten has meant decreasing amounts of time devoted to exploratory learning and child-initiated play. Yet extensive research shows the importance of hands-on learning and creative play in kindergarten. In contrast there is no evidence of long-term gains (in fourth grade and beyond) for the highly didactic and even scripted approaches that many schools have adopted.
The problem for today’s kindergartners is that they, like past generations, learn best when cognitive skills are well integrated with physical, social, and emotional learning. Educate the head as if it is separate from the rest of the child (as frequently happens now) and the learning is shallow and easily forgotten.
While no evidence exists for an academic standards–driven approach to kindergarten producing long-term success, many child development experts believe that high-pressure kindergartens are actually doing harm by increasing children’s stress and contributing to early burn-out. It is time for the pendulum to swing back toward play-based, experiential education. But the new Core Standards will instead freeze the pendulum where it is or drive it even further in a didactic and scripted direction.
The new standards for kindergarten, on the whole, are not research-based. We know of no definitive research showing that certain discrete skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. The standards tend to represent educated guesswork, not educational, cognitive, or developmental science.
For this reason the standards writers had a hard time agreeing on which specific facts and skills kindergartners need to know. Their final decisions seem arbitrary in many cases. Experience shows such narrowly conceived standards lead to teaching methods that thwart young children’s natural curiosity, interests, and energy. And the sheer number of standards in the final version—more than 90 for kindergartners — will require long hours of instruction if children are to achieve them.
Another effect of the standards movement is the proliferation of kindergarten testing despite expert views that testing before age eight is highly unreliable and leads to unjustified and harmful labeling of children as failures. A kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee described over 150 tests that she was required to give in a single year to her class. Most were related to the curriculum, but many were standardized tests. Recent studies show that kindergartens now devote 20 to 30 minutes per day to testing or preparing children for tests.
The new national emphasis on common standards and measurable outcomes will almost certainly intensify testing of young children. It is already common to use kindergarten tests to determine if a child should be promoted, should go into gifted programs, or into special education classes. These are major decisions in a young child’s life. Yet the reliability rate of most kindergarten tests is only 50 percent. One might as well flip a coin and spare the child the test. That would be considered highly unethical, but making high-stakes decisions for a young child’s future based on test scores amounts to the same thing.
There is one bright note in the Core Standards document. In the introduction to the language arts standards, in a section called “What is not covered by the Standards,” they write, “[T]he use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.”
The Alliance for Childhood recommends that teachers and school administrators put this statement about play front and center as they develop ways to implement the new standards if they are adopted, as well as existing state standards. When play and play-based learning are at the heart of education, young children master content much more deeply than when schools rely primarily on didactic instruction. Play has also been shown to reduce stress levels in young children, and many will need that respite as national attention focuses on how many letters, numbers, and words they have mastered by age six. (See “How Schools Can Make Room for Play,” SEEN Magazine 11.3, Winter 2009.)
The erosion of play-based learning in early education is contributing not only to serious problems for children, their families, and teachers, but contributing to societal problems as well. One reason for developing the K–12 Core Standards is high school graduates’ lack of preparedness for college and work. That is a real concern. But the cognitive shortcomings that the standards address are only one part of the picture. Many business executives complain that young people also lack social and problem-solving skills and can’t think creatively. All of these abilities are enhanced by playful, active learning.
While the new Core Standards may help graduates in some ways, they will handicap them in others. It is vital that we restore play-based education to kindergarten and preserve it in preschools, while setting realistic goals for learning for young children. We need a public outcry in favor of play and play-based learning in kindergartens. It is vital that teachers and school administrators who understand the importance of play speak out. Recent surveys show that parents are concerned about the loss of play from children’s lives. With encouragement, parents can become effective allies for educators in the movement to restore play-based learning for their children.