When I think back to kindergarten, it isn’t the classroom lessons or the teacher-led instructions that I remember. I mostly remember the times I spent playing with my friends and having fun. Although most of my free-play was carried out on the playground, I remember that my teachers also incorporated a lot of games and playful learning techniques into the classroom setting. With these playful activities such as coloring, drawing, or playing games, we were able to tap into our imaginations and ignite our creativity, which is so vibrant at 5 years of age.
Back then, educators understood that play was important, not only to our mental and physical well-being, but also to our academic well-being. Through play-based learning, we retained more information, remained focused, and had a little fun, which is not something that many children can say about the modern school setting. Now, children in kindergarten classrooms are forced to stay inside, read books (often on their own), and watch their teacher stand at the front of the classroom and teach a lesson that is often uninteresting. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many teachers still strive to incorporate play and games into their curriculum, but there are far too many opportunities for play being taken from our kindergarten students today.
A principle, named Joan Almon, wrote a research-based article on this very topic ( found here ) saying that “despite its importance for cognitive, social-emotional, and physical growth, play has largely been pushed out of kindergarten classrooms and is currently vanishing from preschool classrooms as well…” Joan went on to say that the most likely reason for this shift from play to teacher-led instruction in the U.S. could be attributed to the popular belief that children should start reading at age 5, even though there is not much evidence supporting that they will be any better off than if they started reading at age 6 or 7. In fact, as she later explains, many countries don’t even begin formal reading until 6 or 7 and focus more on play-based learning up through age 5. This, as they claim, allows the children to “build a bridge from oral language to written language.”
In the U.S. today, it seems almost backwards to turn from this teacher-led instruction strategy and incorporate more play into the classroom, but Almon provides some very persuasive research arguing that play just may be the way to go.
To begin with, Almon introduces the bi-directional aspect of play and how it furthers a child’s learning. On one hand, their knowledge of the world is being enriched “through appropriate content being offered in interesting and experiential ways”, and on the other hand, they are also able to carry out their own ideas into play. Therefore, the play is building on their knowledge, but at the same time, their knowledge is reconstructing their play. Aside from this, there are several proven benefits of play-based learning.
The first major benefit of play-based learning is that, as several studies have indicated, heightened language and social skills are shown through children’s play. This seems trivial at first, but if you think about the limitless opportunities for new conversations, not to mention the new vocabulary words that would arise with any given play-setting, there is no wonder why language and social skills would likely increase.
The second major benefit of play-based learning was found through a study conducted in Germany in the 1970s, where they studied the long-term affects of play-based learning in kindergarten classes. They found that those from play-based kindergarten classrooms exceeded those from cognitive classrooms in creativity, oral expression, and industry. The findings were actually so compelling, in fact, that many schools in Germany reverted back to play-based programs.
Many people would find this shocking that kids from play-based learning classrooms would score higher than those from cognitive classrooms, but the thing that makes play-based learning so effective is that children are involved in exploration and learning without even thinking about it. For example, in one of the studies mentioned in the article, researchers found that “about half of the play scenarios contained mathematical activity.” This included things such as patterns, shapes, numbers, quantities, and so on. This exemplifies how children are still learning the necessary material, it is just about presenting it in a fun way that will keep them interested enough to recall the information. One child from her article even stated, “At recess, I remember everything I learned.”
Overall, it is easy to see that play-based learning is much more beneficial to children’s academic well-being, and it is much more enjoyable for the students as well as the teacher. They are constantly being forced to try out new possibilities, use trial-and -error techniques, implement creativity and curiosity, and use many problem solving and social skills that are very important to academic success. Luckily, the Common Core Standards, as Almon claimed, are just vague enough on reading standards that kindergarten teachers across the nation should be able to implement more play-based learning into their classrooms without problem. That way, children can get back to learning in the way that it was meant to be: fun.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. The kids in the video below have a lot to say about play and learning as well, and if I couldn’t convince you, I am sure they can!