In Support of Intentional Play

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

Last month, the Alliance for Childhood released a report titled “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.“  They had me with the first sentence: “The argument of this report, that child-initiated play must be restored to kindergarten will be dismissed and even ridiculed in some quarters.”  

I let out a cheer that startled my co-workers.

I am a huge fan of play in the early childhood classroom (preschool through grade 3).  The research is clear.  Through play, children develop a host of important skills and knowledge including social skills (for negotiating and cooperating with peers), language (particularly in dramatic play, which studies show fosters children in using more complete and complex language), literacy (as they interact with literacy materials in the play environment), as well as math and science (as they interact with manipulatives including blocks, puzzles, and toy vehicles).

For those of you who didn’t let out a supportive cheer at news of this report, I’d like to clarify two things that I spend a great deal of time communicating to teachers during professional development.  “Free play” doesn’t mean “free for all” and “child-initiated” doesn’t mean “teacher-free.”

Free play is distinguished from “structured” play by its opportunity to engage the imagination and its lack of rules (as in game rules, not behavior and classroom management rules).  To reap the greatest benefits from free play, teachers need to be intentional about the activities and materials available during this portion of the day.  Unfortunately, many teachers provision their centers with things like dolls and dishes, blocks, and a sensory table (sand and water table) but don’t rotate or supplement these provisions regularly.  Day after day children can play house, build towers, and dig in the sand. The teachers are happy. The kids are happy. What else is there to do? Well, consider how the learning opportunities change if one day instead of a housekeeping center, there’s an airport setup; instead of a sand table, there’s an archaeological dig; and instead of 120 unit blocks, there are 120 unit blocks, a level, a tape measure, a book of home plans, and a construction hat. Consider further, how learning opportunities change if a week later the airport is replaced by a cruise ship complete with ball gowns and a captain’s buffet, and the sensory table is filled with balls of different sizes and a variety of containers with different sized openings.   Or if the construction tools are replaced by plastic animals and vegetation. With intentionality, teachers can create play opportunities that reinforce specific skills and knowledge. This involves a planning on the part of the teacher, but enhances children’s opportunities to learn during free play.

With regard to my second clarification, “child-initiated” doesn’t mean “teacher-free.” The research is also clear about the role of teacher-child interactions in supporting children’s acquisition of knowledge. Adults support children’s learning by allowing children to demonstrate existing skills, and by scaffolding children in support of attaining more complex skills. By assuming a role in the play and minimizing directive behavior, adults can extend children’s opportunities to learn.  For instance, by assuming a role during dramatic play, teachers can model language and actions for children without telling them what they should say or do. Children take the imaginative lead and teachers follow. By asking children about their work products in ways that require brainstorming, reflection or analysis, adults can extend children’s learning. For instance, “How do you think we can build the opening large enough for the animals to fit through?” Teacher-child interaction during play requires restraint on the part of the teacher to ensure that children are initiating and teachers are facilitating.

PreK: Access for All? Or For All At-Risk Children?

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

A Washington Post reader last October asked education columnist Jay Mathews to “start a discussion on the advantages (real and imagined) of pre-kindergarten.”  The writer cited evidence that the effects of pre-k wear off and expressed concerns attempting to serve middle-class and at-risk kids with the same program might be “a sure recipe for a new middle-class benefit that shortchanges the poor.”

In response, Sara Mead of the New America Foundation laid out a case for universal pre-k (UPK) largely based on research demonstrating that all children, not just low-SES kids, would benefit.  “It’s true,” she wrote, “that the high-quality, randomized controlled trials that demonstrated long-term benefits to participation in high-quality pre-k programs focused on low-income students.”

But data from more recent evaluations of pre-k programs suggests that these programs also have benefits for middle-class children. For example, a Georgetown University study that looked at children in Oklahoma’s universal pre-k program found that all groups of students participating in the program, including middle class kids, made learning gains as a result, compared to students who didn’t. But the greatest gains were for low-income and otherwise at-risk students. Other studies looking at state pre-k programs have found similar results.

Mathews’ correspondent observed that the middle class has to be included to build the political momentum to get a program passed.  Mead cited research that shows a lot of working- and middle-class families can’t afford pre-k either.  And she’s especially persuasive when she notes “the simple fact that we don’t restrict children’s access to K-12 education based on their parents’ incomes.”

In the end, the question of universal pre-k vs low-income pre-k is a political question.  But the benefit of preschool for low-SES children can no longer be seriously disputed.  There is no doubt that access to high-quality preschool programs helps. But the key phrase in that sentence is not access, but high-quality.  Universal access to low-quality preschool would be a high-cost, low-value proposition.  Data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows most programs in the United States are rated mediocre, and fewer than 10% meet national accreditation standards:

Across the nation child care fees average $4,000 to $10,000 per year, exceeding the cost of public universities in most states. Yet, nationally only 1 in 7 children who are financially eligible for child care subsidies is being served, and only 41% of 3 and 4 year old children living in poverty are enrolled in preschool, compared to 58% of those whose families have higher incomes.

Cracking the nut of ensuring high-quality is a work in progress.  What we do know is that it is dependent on what teachers do in the classroom, not just what they have in the classroom.            

In the end, I’m agnostic on universal PreK.  It certainly would do no harm, and much good.  But we must find a way to guarantee every low-income child a place in a high-quality preschool. If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, it’s not going to happen without a robust program that captures all of our most vulnerable, at-risk children.