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How Kindergarten Stepping Stones Promotes Free Play

February 24, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern, with contributions from the writing team of Kindergarten Stepping Stones

 “Across the country, kindergartners are being told what to do and how to do it, every single step along the way, all day long. They play less and study more than they did 20 years ago. This is what kindergarten has become, and it’s not a good thing.”

The above quote from Christopher Brown, PhD, accurately summarizes the state of many kindergarten classrooms today. Due to new pressure for students to read by the end of kindergarten, schedules are shifting toward a full day of academics, with scripted activities rather than free play.

“Hours are devoted each day to teaching young children reading, writing, and arithmetic and giving tests or preparing children for tests,” said Alliance for Childhood co-founder Joan Almond. “Little if any time is given for play or other free choice activities.”

The negative consequences of limiting free play time could fill a book. Without it, expulsion rates increase, creativity drops, and kids miss out on basic interpersonal and cognitive skills. Students who don’t meet the “standards” receive the label of “needs improvement,” leading them to feel inadequate almost before they’ve begun their educational career.

To top it off, in teacher Christine Gerzon’s words, “five-year-olds don’t learn by listening to a rote lesson, their bottoms on their chairs. They learn through experience. They learn through play.” So, by eliminating play to focus on learning, kindergarten classrooms are in fact eliminating the best way that their students do learn. There’s also little evidence that learning to read by age five (or crossing off various other rigorous educational milestones) is the magic bullet for later academic success. Educator Elizabeth Mulvahill cites research stating that the benefits, if any, often diminish by third grade.

Our Kindergarten Stepping Stones (KSS) curriculum was designed with these issues in mind, structuring an environment based on student choice, free play, and experiential learning in which early learners are free to create, explore, and grow. Here are four ways that our customized, cross-curricular program pushes back against, as Patti Hartigan terms it, “pressure-cooker kindergarten”:         

  1. “Off We Go” Introduction theme

KSS follows the nine themes of the Pathways 2.0 Reading and Language Arts program but begins with an additional introduction theme, “Off We Go,” to introduce early learners to the school setting. Simple, loosely structured activities such as classroom treasure hunts allow students the freedom to explore and adjust to their new environment on their own terms, without diving immediately into a rigidly structured curriculum.

  1. Flexible schedule

According to our Teacher Manual, KSS is “an integrated curriculum that is driven by activities, not subjects.” To educate the whole child, we encourage teachers to strike a balance between academics and play, allowing the students’ needs and the day to dictate the activity choice. This is reinforced by our suggested schedule, which proposes one hour of rest and quiet time and a half hour of free choice.

  1. Recess

Our KSS materials expressly state that “[t]ime spent outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine is important to health and happiness. It should not be cut short or sacrificed for ‘more important’ things that must be accomplished in the classroom, but should be highly valued and guarded.” Our curriculum doesn’t place an absolute premium on academic achievement but promotes physical and emotional well-being as well as intellectual successes.

  1. Free play

Most important, KSS includes ideas for centers, such as dramatic play, construction, and art, that allow children to design their own projects and scenarios in free play. This is not “intentional” play: guided, teacher-dictated playtime with an academic purpose. Rather, it’s a chance for kids to choose what they play and how. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning—far from it. They are learning skills of interaction, cooperation, communication, and sharing. They’re practicing fine motor skills, learning principles of balance or design, and using new vocabulary in context. But their learning isn’t scripted or spoon-fed. They’re discovering it on their own, which is how they learn best.

Interested in how Kindergarten Stepping Stones can bring your students’ learning to life through free play? Visit our website today to learn more about our unique customized curriculum!

If you use centers in your classroom, which stations most attract your students and engage them in free play?