Teaching in the Ways Kindergartners Learn Best

Play, Relationships, and Challenging Content
Blog Post
Picture taken by Laura Bornfreund
March 31, 2023

This blog post is the first in a series on Promoting Impactful Teaching and Learning in Kindergarten.

Kindergarten is an important year for children and their families. For some, it is their first experience in formal education. Some children may be away from their parents or caregiver for the first time. For those who attended an early childhood program, whether in a center, family childcare home, or with a care provider in the neighborhood, kindergarten may look and feel different than their previous experiences. While kindergarten is the first universal education access point for children, they bring diverse experiences and strengths to the classroom. And it’s incumbent on schools and educators to be ready for children regardless of what those experiences and strengths are.

Transitioning into kindergarten can be an intimidating experience for children and families unless kindergarten is a sturdy bridge that supports families and children through the transition, connecting what comes before and after, and regardless of the learning environments, they may have had. State leaders, district administrators, and kindergarten teachers themselves have an opportunity and an obligation to ensure equitable experiences for children and families through this transition, setting the stage for future growth and goal attainment. Ensuring equitable experiences requires implementing developmentally appropriate practices in kindergarten and addressing inequitable access to kindergarten for many children in this country.

If you attended kindergarten prior to the mid-1990s you may recall lots of play, singing, and graham crackers. Over the years, there has been a shift as kindergarten has become more structured and academic, with limited play and outdoor time. Children are often expected to sit at tables and complete worksheets and other rote close-ended activities. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), play is a critical component of early childhood and children's physical, social, and emotional development, yet play has largely disappeared in kindergarten.

Research has shown that children learn best when they are engaged in developmentally appropriate experiences and activities: play! A developmentally appropriate kindergarten environment can support children socially and emotionally and foster positive relationships with peers and adults. According to Turnaround for Children, “...when educators neither prioritize these skills and mindsets nor integrate them with academic development, students are left without tools for engagement or a language for learning.” Developmentally appropriate environments provide the building blocks to guide the development of executive functioning skills and support foundational literacy, language, and math skills while also providing opportunities for fine and gross motor development. By incorporating play and developmentally appropriate practice into the kindergarten environment, teachers can support all children as they continue to grow and develop during this critical time in their lives.

During a webinar co-sponsored by New America and Campaign for Grade-Level Reading webinar in October 2022, A Pivotal Year: Kindergarten’s Important Role in Students’ Education, Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, and Ryan Lee-James, Chief Academic Officer at the Atlanta Speech School, dug deeper into building executive function and children’s reading brain during the kindergarten year. Galinsky urged conversations about kindergarten readiness to move away from focusing on what kindergartners lack when they enter school and instead focus on the strengths they bring and how to then build from there. Schools must be ready for all children. Lee-James highlighted the importance of relationships for building a reading brain. She also discussed how COVID wreaked havoc on children’s learning but pointed out that schools struggled to meet all children’s needs, especially children from marginalized communities, before COVID. “We need to do better for our young learners.”

A second webinar in November 2022, Play + Academics, Relationships,” Teaching in Ways Kindergartners Learn Best explored the most important research findings on teaching and learning in kindergarten. One panelist, Nell Duke, Executive Director of the Center for Early Literacy Success at Stand for Children, spoke about the importance of looking for opportunities for interdisciplinary instruction when you’re developing language. “When you’re developing literacy, you’re developing science and math,” she said. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Professor at Temple University, raised how necessary it is to start “with the cultural values that are meaningful to the community that you’re working in.” And, Anya Hurwitz, Executive Director of Sobrato Early Academic Language, built on Hirsch-Pasek’s point, noting that “when children are engaged, when they’re interested, when they’re curious, the learning is deeper.”

Making learning relevant for young children, recognizing the assets and culture they bring to the classroom, and making learning joyful are all part of delivering developmentally appropriate practice.

There are many opportunities to incorporate developmentally appropriate practice, including playful learning, into the kindergarten classroom. Some strategies include:

  • Maintaining an intentional emphasis on fostering social and emotional development including supporting relationship development with peers and adults. Providing a safe and supportive social space is the cornerstone of all learning.
  • Using a whole child approach meeting children where they are developmentally working toward individualized goals based on their unique needs
  • Prioritizing learning opportunities through engaging, guided play in place of close-ended and rote memory activities.
  • Utilizing a daily structure that provides children with flexibility and ample opportunities for gross motor and outdoor activities.
  • Providing opportunities for student choice and autonomy in their learning and for student talk and collaboration
  • Incorporating intentional, culturally responsive, and inclusive family engagement programs and activities.
  • Ensuring written materials in the classroom are reflective of the home languages and culture of the children in the class and available in all areas where the child engages throughout the day.
  • Remembering always that kindergarten should reflect a joy of learning!

To support kindergarten and early grade educators in delivering these developmentally appropriate practice ideas, state and local education agencies can promote curricula and instructional tools that are aligned with DAP, provide professional learning opportunities to build teacher and principal understanding of child development, and resources to ensure that classrooms are equipped to allow for exploration, discovery, and play.

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