Academic journal article Childhood Education

If We Call It Science, Then Can We Let the Children Play?

Academic journal article Childhood Education

If We Call It Science, Then Can We Let the Children Play?

Article excerpt

One of the mixed pleasures of preparing new early childhood teachers is that after they graduate, they come back to visit. They bring stories of teaching kindergarten in the "real world" where, they tell us, they do not have enough time or resources and, most significantly, play is not viewed as the primary medium for learning. I will describe one student's experience that is typical of what our graduates, as well as the research, describe as the kindergarten teacher's dilemma (Hatch & Freeman, 1988; Nourot, 1991). This particular student, however, moved beyond a description of the dilemma. She shared a strategy that helped her establish play--specifically, investigative play (Wasserman, 1990)--as a legitimate activity in her classroom. As a result, she helped me reconceptualize the role of play in kindergarten.

Kate's Story: Part 1

"Why can't we let the children play?" Kate is a kindergarten teacher who graduated from University of Vermont's early childhood program 10 years ago. She has been teaching kindergarten in the rural Northeast for several years. During a recent visit, Kate reflected on her experiences. She reported finding little support for a curriculum based on child-directed activity and play. Moreover, she had found it nearly impossible to incorporate the ramps, pulleys and other transformational materials that reflect the constructivist orientation of her undergraduate training (Duckworth, 1987; Forman & Hill, 1984; Forman & Kuschner, 1983; Goldhaber, 1992a; Goldhaber, 1992b; Goldhaber & Smith, 1993). Such materials, she was told, were too messy, too noisy and too "non-academic looking" for her school.

Kate's story is not unique. Many graduates return from the field to describe constraints placed upon them in their public school settings. These constraints appear to fall into three categories. First, new teachers must confront attitudes concerning the role of play in learning. While our students have been trained to value child-directed, teacher-facilitated play as the medium for learning (Goldhaber & Smith, 1993), many find it difficult to explain these practices to their colleagues, parents and administrators.

New teachers often find it easier to put their child-centered perspective into action rather than words. Consequently, they must eventually struggle to explain the "why" of their active, sometimes noisy, classrooms. Those with more experience and self-confidence are better prepared to justify their practice, but find such explanations to be energy and time consuming. Yet how are the concerns of colleagues, parents and administrators to be put to rest if teachers cannot explain the role of play in learning or cannot find the time to do so?

Time presents another constraint to implementing a play-oriented curriculum. Public school schedules are often composed of relatively short blocks of time during which children are expected to focus on different topics or activities. Teachers who have a more integrated view of learning believe that children need long uninterrupted blocks of time in which to construct an understanding of their social and physical worlds. Short, activity-focused lessons plus interruptions for "specials" (such as gym, resource room, art) make such scheduling difficult and, in some cases, impossible.

Finally, materials that teachers consider essential to an effective play-based curriculum are often absent from or forbidden in the classroom. Materials that are particularly appropriate to children's investigations of the logico-mathematical relationships in the physical world are sometimes frowned upon for classroom use. Sand and water may be too messy, duct tape too sticky and ceiling tile struts too fragile. Teachers trained to value the importance of children's active exploration of the "relation between himself and objects and the relation between objects and objects" (Forman & Kuschner, 1983, p. 52) find such limitations to be almost insurmountable. …

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