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Why Aren't We Doing What Is Best for Young Learners?

The following is a collaboration between educators. The WarpEd satirical cartoon is through a collaboration with the amazing Taryl Hansen, a National Board Certified Teacher and founder of Frame the Message Ink. The accompanying writing is from Betsy Keith, a veteran teacher in Denver and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership program at Mount Holyoke College. Read more about Betsy below.
WarpED 9-01.jpg
I'm sitting in the blocks center of my pre-k classroom. Around me, a cluster of 3-year-olds are putting the final arch on top of their skyscraper when the entire structure wobbles and tips over. We return to the drawing board, as I scaffold them through a plan to build a stronger foundation. Next door, in the kitchen, two students are poring over a recipe book as they assemble a pizza for their dinner party. At the sand table, one student asks another to please take turns with the favorite shovel. All over the classroom, students are engaged in learning at their own pace through rigorous, self-selected activities. 
At the school down the road, an entire class of kindergarten students is sitting down at tables in front of their math workbooks. 
There's something wrong with this picture. If those of us who work with 3- to 5-year-olds know that free choice and play are the most effective ways to promote holistic development, why are kindergarteners—only one year older than my playful group—spending all day in teacher-directed academic activities?
As those of us who live in the early childhood world know, play is about a lot more than "just" having fun.  Research is accumulating that shows the positive effects of play on cognitive, social-emotional, and language development. In a well-designed classroom, play integrates all of those with the opportunity to work on literacy and math skills in the ways that work best for individual students.
This isn't to say that we should do away with teacher-directed activities and academic objectives in kindergarten. But we can and should balance those with significant time spent in meaningful play. After all, as we read recipes and explore the solid properties of blocks, we're also developing problem-solving strategies, oral language, social skills, emotional self-regulation, executive functioning skills, and a love of learning.  
In the long run, that's got to be worth more than an extra half-hour with the math workbooks.

Betsy Keith is from Boulder, Colo., where she decided to become a teacher approximately five minutes after starting kindergarten. She's held several positions in Title I schools in Denver Public Schools, including a year of small group math instruction and a Spanish language kindergarten in a turnaround school. The past three years, she's taught 3- to 5-year-olds in both Spanish and English at Colfax Elementary School. She has also recently added a team specialist role, taking on data teams and professional development for her grade level.

Photo courtesy of Eduardo Duarte.
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