DEY defends play-based learning on PBS NewsHour

Are young kids losing the brain-boosting benefits of playtime?

Earlier this month, Cat Wise from PBS NewsHour featured Defending the Early Years and the Mission Hill School in a segment taking a look at play-based learning. We are thrilled to share it here – in case you missed it!

And for a full transcript of the story go here, to the story on PBS NewsHour’s website.

“Yes, You Are Allowed To Do That!” One Principal’s Mission to Bring Back Play in School

by Brett Gustafson

As a principal for the last 13 years, I have come to the realization that the biggest threat to the emotional and academic well-being of our children is me – maybe not me personally but principals.  Principals are telling teachers to do away with play in school because, “We need to be more academic.”  The problem is that all the data and the research out there proves that statement 100% false.  Play in all grades, especially the early grades, is necessary for students’ emotional, behavioral and academic success. I am heartbroken to hear parents in my town tell me “kindergarten is too serious” or “my child was labeled ADHD because he can’t sit in kindergarten.”  I am here to tell principals we need to become part of the solution.  This account is one more piece of evidence in a growing pile of data that shows children learn best through play.

Four years ago I was hired to turn around a school that was dubbed “The Worst School in the State” by a, then, assistant superintendent.  I discovered the principal before me made all kindergarten teachers throw out their sand tables, kitchen centers, and blocks to make the early years more academic.  At that time, less than 30% of kindergarten students met the state benchmark for early reading proficiency and there was 350 out of school suspensions in a school of 500 students.  Clearly, the get tough, “no excuses” policies were not working. header_640037029_

Many principals of a chronically underperforming school probably would have continued to push for “more academic” lessons in the early grades, because most principals do not come from early childhood settings.  They are not aware of the research nor do they have any personal experience working with young children. They think of kindergarteners as mini-fifth graders who should sit in their seats and get to work. I am fortunate enough to have a wife who is an early childhood expert who hands me articles to read about play in school and proudly boasts she can teach every Common Core State Standard for kindergarten math in the block center.  With her guidance, I performed a little experiment with my kindergarten teachers.  The teachers and I read articles on the need for play in the classroom and I encouraged them to create multiple opportunities for students to engage in interactive play throughout the day.  One teacher, who seemed like she was on a hidden camera show, asked, “Wait, we’re allowed to play in the classroom?”  It is heartbreaking that the question needed to be asked, but, in most schools, teachers are told explicitly not to let the kids play or “play is for recess.”  I reassured her, “Yes, you are allowed to do that.”

Remarkably, there was one teacher on the grade that wanted nothing to do with this “experiment,” so she became the control group and life in her class stayed much as it had last few years according to district recommendations.   Two of my kindergarten teachers embraced the idea of play in the classroom and flourished.  Jessica Scire, who had been teaching for five years, seemed a bit depressed with her class prior to the experiment, but then, with a big smile, declared, “This is what I was went to school for.  This is why I went into teaching.” She created a play center with a pizza restaurant where each day students created scenes from the restaurant that included wait staff taking orders on paper, delivery drivers, and dinner conversation.  Lisette Garcia was the other teacher who later told me of her subversion, “I’ve been doing play even when we weren’t supposed to because I knew my kids needed it.” housekeeping corner 1Now, with the blessing of the principal ,her kitchen center was brought to its glory. She shared, “It builds their vocabulary, especially for my ELL students.”  Throughout the year, Scire and Garcia incorporated elements of movement, song, and play in all their subjects and the kids thrived.

Perhaps it is not surprising that there was practically zero office referrals in the two kindergarten classes that incorporated play in their lessons.  The students were more engaged and they were allowed to move around the classroom in a manner appropriate for five-year-olds.  The control group class, on the other hand, had practically a referral a day and I was forced to send more adults into that class to intervene with students who had so called “problem behaviors.” 

What was surprising to some was the incredible academic gains the two play classes made this year.  In the class where they created stories in the pizza restaurant, 67% met the state benchmark for kindergarten reading.  In the class with a vocabulary-rich kitchen center, 61% met benchmark and that includes a high number of students whose first language is not English.  These were the highest reading scores in the school’s history.  The teacher who wanted to be “more academic” had just 35% of her students scoring at benchmark. 

blocks 2Next year, we are working on expanding play and movement to all four classes in kindergarten and all four classes in first grade.  It is clear to me, as it should be to all principals, that play is a necessary component of learning.  This should come as no surprise to early childhood educators but many elementary principals are slow to embrace.  I share this account with Defending The Early Years not to boast “Look how great I am!” because, had it not been my wife (who worked with Senior DEY Advisor Dr. Diane Levin in college), I might not have been so quick to try this experiment this year.  I share this because I know there are many well-intentioned principals out there who don’t have the early childhood background to know how crucial play is for learning.  Please share this with them to let them know, “Yes, you are allowed to do that.”

Brett Gustafson is the husband of early childhood educator Libby Rackliffe-Gustafson and the principal of James Curiale School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.   

Senior Advisor Nancy Carlsson-Paige Reflects on the 2016 Network for Public Education Conference

The 2016 Network for Public Education Conference, held April 15-17 in Raleigh, NC, is truly an experience—something hard to describe.  For a few days in April, education and social justice activists from around the country come together in a burst of energy and synergy to share lives and ideas and to build an education movement for equity and justice for all children.

I was glad that Denisha Jones, DEY National Advisory Board member, and I attended because our session was the only one focused exclusively on young children.  Our panel was called T-E-S-T and Not PLAY is a Four-Letter Word:  Putting the Young Child and the Teacher at the Center of Education Reform.  Susan Ochshorn, early childhood author and journalNPE 2016 3ist, moderated, and we were joined by Michelle Gunderson, first grade teacher and early childhood leader in the Chicago Teachers Union. We covered many issues in a short time including the decrease in play and active learning in classrooms for young children, the disproportionate effects of corporate education reform on black and brown children and those in low-income communities, and the need to strengthen our advocacy for young children.  Lots of folks attended the session and I was really glad we were there to connect early childhood issues to the larger landscape of education reform that were the focus of the conference.

Many people came up to me over the course of the three days in Raleigh to tell me how they follow DEY, appreciate us, and benefit from using our materials.  It was really heNPE 2016 2artening to realize that we are voicing important ideas and issues that might otherwise not be accessible to teachers and parents.  People are using the papers we’ve put out in a variety of ways as well as our fact sheets, and many say they read our website regularly.

At the conference, we learned about many new documentary films being made about the current state of education in our country.  All of these films and how to order them are listed on the NPE website.   In a separate session we saw a “fine cut” preview of the almost finished documentary Backpack Full of Cash.  This film is being made by Sarah Mondale and Vera Aranow who made the PBS series called SCHOOL which received so much acclaim.   Their new film unwraps the movement to privatize our nation’s schools, telling a straightforward and understandable narrative through the eyes of the communities affected.   The film should be out in the coming year and I think its time is right.

On Saturday, we listened to a riveting keynote speech from Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP, about the history of racism in our schools and the continuing reality of systemic racism that permeates our society today.  Rev. Barber is a gifted orator who can move his listeners to new levels of awareness by his artistic crafting of words and powerful delivery.Themes of charter schools, over-testing, privatization, racial justice, poverty, global education, democracy, and public education ran through the speeches and sessions of the conference, helping all of us to heighten our understanding and also our resolve to continue our work.  I felt re-energized about our work at Defending the Early Years, proud of what we do, sure that we should keep on.

Maybe next year YOU will want to attend the Network for Public Education conference—you won’t be disappointed!

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Learning to Count to 14 the Common Core Way and the DAP Way…

Learning to Count to 14 the Common Core Way and the Developmentally Appropriate Way – What is the Difference? Why Does it Matter?

Unfortunately, in too many kindergartens today, even many of the best trained teachers in play-based, developmentally appropriate practice say they are being pressured into teaching fact-based, “one-size-fits-all” math lessons and find that play-based activities are severely curtailed, if not banned.  This situation deprives young children of the opportunities they need now more than ever to develop a meaningful foundation for mathematical concepts in developmentally appropriate ways (Kamii, 2015; VanHoorn, 2015).  It undermines their ability and enthusiasm to use math to figure out real problems in the real world.  And having these meaningful learning experiences with math in school is increasingly important in today’s world, as media and technology take up more and more of the time many young children used to spend developing the foundations for mathematical thinking in their own uniquely created hands-on play activities at home (Levin 2013). If we want to optimize young children’s early math development and learning, we much return to high-quality, play-based activities, where well-trained teachers connect math learning to how children learn and to individual children’s interests and needs (Exchange, Jan./Feb. 2016).

Please read more in thmathforexchangee attached article by DEY’s Senior Advisor, Diane E. Levin and DEY’s co-director, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, which was originally published by Exchange Magazine in the Jan/Feb 2016 edition.

 

DEY Releases “Straight Talk about Kindergarten Readiness Assessment”

What is kindergarten readiness assessment?  Why is Defending the Early Years concerned about the current state of readiness assessment?  What can parents, teachers, and policymakers do about inappropriate kindergarten assessment?

Answers to these questions and more can be found in DEY’s newest report, “Straight Talk About Kindergarten Readiness Assessment,” written by Stephanie Feeney, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Education at the University of Hawaii and a member of DEY’s National Advisory Board.

Download the report below.  There are two versions available, one with full color photos and the other without photos for easier copying:

Kindergarten assessment with photos FINAL March 2016

Kindergarten assessment no photos FINAL March 2016

Kindergarten assessment cover

 

 

DEY Releases “Straight Talk About the Common Core State Standards”

Testing season is around the corner and, once again, Defending the Early Years takes a stand about the Common Core State Standards. Find our newest resource, Straight Talk about the Common Core State Standards, on our website now!

 

DEY at NAEYC’s Annual Conference

DEY Panel at NAEYC
Our DEY panel at NAEYC received a standing ovation! Diane Levin facilitated our panel on the challenges of the Common Core – drawing on the expertise of Joan Almon, Constance Kamii and Lilian Katz. Their messages, which are captured in the advocacy reports they have all published with DEY, truly resonated with the audience. We were able to archive much of the session on video, and have added the clips to our Defending the Early Years’ YouTube Channel.
You can also watch clips from our organizing meeting with Denisha Jones. We had over 50 people in attendance to work with us in identifying key educational issues as well as potential next steps for dealing with the issues. Thanks to Blakely Bundy for her immense help in making this event a success!