July 28, 2023
Many people may think of “play” as simply engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation, but it can be much more for young students (and older students, too). Up until the late 90s, play in kindergarten was expected, but practices have changed over the last 20 years. The table below is from the often-referenced study, Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? led by Daphna Bassok.
Looking at this table (Table 3), we can see that in 1998, most teachers who participated in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, K Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K) reported having science areas, and more than three out of four teachers reported having dramatic (make-believe) play areas and art areas in their classrooms. But that wasn’t the case in the follow-up study ECLS-K:2011. And based on interviews and visits I’ve made over the last several years, I would expect even fewer teachers today to have those areas in their classrooms.
Another table (Table 4) in the study, again comparing the teacher survey responses from 1998 and 2010, showed decreased time allowed for child-selected activities, increased time for whole-group instruction, and increased use of textbooks and worksheets. I also expect these trends to persist in the Institute of Education Sciences’ newest version of the ECLS-K:2024. It will launch this fall, so we’ll soon see the more recent changes in kindergarten teaching and learning.
While some education officials may believe there is no time in elementary school for play, there has been a growing shift toward purposeful play or play-based learning as an instructional strategy in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades. In my last post, I highlighted states and school districts that are promoting instruction and learning environments in the ways that young students learn best, including play, exploration, and child-directed activities.
Some states are taking things a step further through new laws.
New Hampshire was the first state to pass play-based learning legislation in 2018. In 2017, New Hampshire fully funded full-day kindergarten. State Representative Victoria Sullivan (R-Manchester) became concerned about kindergarten becoming more academically focused after seeing a marked difference in her two children’s kindergarten experiences. Her older son had a more playful kindergarten experience than her younger son.
Sullivan was unsuccessful in incorporating play into the full-day kindergarten changes, but she tried again in 2018. This time, with the support of administrators and teachers, she succeeded in amending the criteria for an adequate education in New Hampshire. One part of the law now says, “Educators shall create a learning environment that facilitates high-quality, child-directed experiences based upon early childhood best teaching practices and play-based learning that comprises movement, creative expression, exploration, socialization, and music.”
But just changing the law isn’t enough. For transformation to occur, there also needs to be definition, accountability, funding, and implementation support for local schools. New Hampshire education leaders knew they needed to define what play-based learning meant and determine the best ways for teachers to incorporate it into their day. Initially, district leaders had a varied understanding of the language in the law. Some thought it just meant free play. The New Hampshire Department of Education partnered with Dr. Kimberly Nesbitt, an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), to help create an operational definition for play-based learning and to provide workshops for teachers, administrators, and curriculum instructors.
Later that year, Nesbitt spearheaded the state’s Preschool Development Grant effort, in which she included supporting practice-based coaching on play-based learning in both B-5 early childhood education programs and in kindergarten. The coaching provided by UNH continues to grow, with more and more kindergarten teachers opting in with the support of the administrators. UNH’s ongoing work has also included the development of several resources and training workshops on play-based learning and the teacher’s role in guided play.
In 2021, State Representative Joseph Rosecrants (D-Norman) successfully moved playful learning legislation in Oklahoma with his Play to Learn Act. The law states, “School districts shall not prohibit a teacher from utilizing play-based learning in early childhood education.” The Act defines early childhood education as PreK-3rd grades. The law says school districts may provide related professional development for PreK-3rd educators and administrators but does not require it. As Rosecrants looked for legislative models, he came across the New Hampshire law and connected with Representative Sullivan to discuss his ideas for Oklahoma. Like the New Hampshire law, there are no accountability measures and no specific funding dedicated to support play-based learning in schools. But in building support for his legislation, Rosecrants has expanded bipartisan support for play in schools, which has been a significant part of his agenda since the former middle school teacher took office in 2017. Rosecrants recognizes there is more to do in supporting elementary schools to use play as a tool for learning, but for now, has turned his attention to expanding students’ access to daily outdoor recess. (The outdoors are also great learning environments!)
After the law passed, the State Department of Education’s Early Childhood Education division conducted a virtual meeting on playing with purpose and connecting play with state PreK-3rd grade standards. And at this summer’s Inspire Oklahoma Conference, there was a Play with Purpose session.
When I visited Oklahoma kindergarten classrooms last fall, principals told me that while the law has not changed instruction in the school for most young learners, it has provided essential cover and affirmation for principals and teachers who were already using play or who want to use play as a tool for learning in kindergarten and the early grades.
This year, Connecticut joined New Hampshire in passing legislation to require play-based learning in schools.* The legislation signed by Governor Ned Lamont (D-CT) was embedded in a broad education law related to teachers and paraeducators. Section 4 of the new law states that as of July 1, 2024, “Each local and regional board of education shall provide for play-based learning during the instructional time of each regular school day for all students in kindergarten and any preschool program offered by the board.” The law also requires local and regional boards of education to permit teachers of students in grades one to five to do the same. The law defines play-based learning as a pedagogical approach used with Connecticut’s learning standards. The law also requires professional development, including training on play-based learning for preschool through fifth-grade teachers.
For many years, Connecticut has engaged in PreK-3rd work. The University of Connecticut (with support from the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood and Connecticut State Department of Education) has administered a PK-3 Leadership Program for those in leadership positions at elementary schools and school districts to build their knowledge of early childhood development and understand the benefits of PreK-3rd alignment. Additionally, Connecticut officials have produced several resources for districts and schools on transitions to kindergarten, evidence-based practices in PreK-3rd, PreK-2nd grade teacher evaluation, and play-based learning in early education. With a year before the new play-based learning requirements go into effect, state officials have time to take stock of what’s happening in schools and determine needed resources, supports, and training (and for whom). For instance, some teachers may be ready to take the play-based learning requirement and run with it, but their administrator may be skeptical; the inverse is possible, too.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, putting requirements for play into law isn’t the only way to be sure it’s happening in schools. But state law does, at the very least, make a statement about what is important and what state leaders value regarding education. And I, for one, am really happy to see state legislators championing play-based learning in kindergarten and the early grades. If more state legislators opt to go down this path, here are four key areas to consider:
- Funding for equipment and professional learning- Most K-3rd grade teachers lack classrooms equipped for play-based learning. Educators will need dollars for make-believe play, exploration, blocks, legos, other science and math-focused toys, and art supplies. In addition, teachers and administrators will need professional learning on the best ways to incorporate and support play-based learning. Ideally, this would include ongoing coaching and professional learning communities.
- Accountability- There needs to be some monitoring or other mechanism to understand if play is happening in schools; otherwise, some students will lose out.
- Educator preparation- In most states, early childhood education and elementary education credentials overlap. ECE preparation programs may include play-based learning, but elementary preparation programs likely do not. Improving pre-service preparation will need to be part of the picture to make long-term changes to the way teachers think about instructional approaches. Currently, most states do not include early learning or child development coursework for administrator preparation.
- Evaluation- To what extent are teachers using play-based learning strategies, and for which children? State agencies rarely have the capacity or resources to take on evaluation. Yet, it is the only way to determine what’s working and what’s not and engage educators and other stakeholders in finding solutions.
*On August 1, 2023, this post was updated to clarify that only New Hampshire and Connecticut require play-based learning. Oklahoma prohibits school districts from telling teachers they cannot use play-based learning.