Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


K & Preschool Teachers: Last Stand in War on Childhood?

Kindergarten and preschool teachers everywhere struggle to preserve play.

Pixabay CCO Public Domain
Source: Pixabay CCO Public Domain

The war against childhood continues.

Children are no longer generally free to roam, play, and explore on their own as they were in the past and are designed by nature to do. Parents who allow such play are being arrested. Schools throughout the country have eliminated or greatly curtailed recesses.

The last bastion in the battle to preserve childhood appears to be preschools and kindergartens, where some play still exists. But ground is quickly being lost there, too, despite the efforts of some teachers to hold on.

I have spoken in recent months at several conferences of early childhood educators, mostly preschool and kindergarten teachers. At each, I’ve heard passionate descriptions of struggles to preserve play.

They are battling the effects of No Child Left Behind, and now Common Core, which have trickled down from the higher grades to K and preschool.

They are battling policymakers who know nothing about childhood, who ignore the piles of research showing the value of play and the long-term harm of early academic training (see here and here), and who and see standardized test scores as the end-all and be-all of education.

They are battling administrators, who either have fallen for the pro-testing propaganda or are cynically pretending they believe it in order to preserve their high-salaried positions.

They are battling teachers in the grades above, who tell them that their job is to prepare little children for the next stage in school by teaching them to sit still, do worksheets, and suppress their urges to play and explore.

They are battling parents, who have come to believe that their 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds will never get into Harvard if they “just play” in preschool and kindergarten. Sometimes the battle is too hard, so they quit, or worse: They give in and do what they know is wrong.

[Note: Early childhood educators as a whole are loving and nonviolent people, so when I say “battle,” I am referring to their attempts at reasoned persuasion.]

Some comments from early childhood educators on my last two posts

In my last two essays in this series (here and here), I summarized some of the evidence and logic behind the claim that the push toward early academic training is actually reducing, not increasing, academic ability in the long run and is damaging children’s social and emotional development.

Some of the most passionate comments to those essays came from preschool and kindergarten teachers. Here are quotations from five such commenters:

"I teach kindergarten for 11 more days. What we are doing to the 4- to 6-year-old kids in this country is absolutely unethical and inappropriate. Any professional educator who truly understands how children develop—academically, cognitively, socially, emotionally—will stand up against the travesty that reformers refer to as "rigor." Kids do NOT need to be reading by the end of kindergarten. (If they can, GREAT!) They do NOT need to be solving paper-and-pencil equations. They do NOT need to be doing "academic" workstations. They DO need to be playing, painting, building, creating, interacting with books, listening to stories, singing songs, taking field trips, playing pretend, exploring, etc. ... I am leaving kindergarten, but I will be fighting for early childhood so that I can eventually go back to kindergarten. But I refuse to be part of something so dangerous to our young children."

"I am a retired preschool teacher. I taught young children for well over 20 years. I was always forced by my employers to push math, and especially writing with 3-year-olds. The outcome of that push to academics was rarely successful and produced lots of miserable little people. I always believed that I was doing far more harm than good. I feel refreshed to read about experts who are trying to step out of that discipline of thinking. I hope that soon little ones will be able to go to preschool to play, have fun, and learn in a natural and happy way."

"The system as a whole is broken; it is why I left the profession. Truth is, most school districts, at least the ones I have worked [at] in America, do not use scientific evidence or best practices to teach kids. They instead use the next fad that comes along, "Common Core" being the latest debacle, from government bureaucracy because it comes with money or grants from the state or federal government and then test these kids to death until they hate school, hate learning, and wish nothing more than to get out because the ones that already are disadvantaged never measure up and continuously keep seeing their failures rather than their strengths. Worse, they test these kids in kindergarten, so the cycle of failure and frustration begins at an early age! If we want to change the education system, then it is up to the parents and educators who must stop allowing politicians and book companies, who make ridiculous amounts of money off these curriculum initiatives, to force these unscientific methods of teaching down the throats of children. Boycott testing, write your representatives, and go to school board meetings and demand the reversal of early academic testing. It is the only way to bring play back to schools."

"As a preschool and kindergarten teacher and trainer for over 30 years, I've seen such drastic changes in early childhood education—so many programs have gone from play-based to skills-based and the kids are losing out … I've visited K programs where recess is no longer an option because 'the kids have so much work to do!' I've been in classrooms where young students sit at their desks and cry because they can't do the writing the teacher is asking them to do."

It’s not just in the US that this is occurring. Here’s a comment from the UK:

"I have been a primary school teacher (elementary) in the UK for the past 25 years. In that time, I have witnessed swings towards child-initiated learning and then all the way back again to didactic instruction. Our government sends in inspectors to check that we're following the latest dogma. As a result, we have the most tested children in the world. All children in England take a test at age 6 to check their phonics knowledge. Parents are informed if their child fails. Yes, you can be labeled a failure at the age of 6!"

Results of a “netnographic” study of the views of kindergarten teachers

The most recent issue of the American Journal of Play includes an interesting article, by Meghan Lynch, describing her netnographic study of kindergarten teachers’ writings about play in the classroom (you can download the article here).

Netnography is a new variety of ethnography that relies on the analysis of publicly available comments in social media to learn about the views and practices of a group of people.

Lynch identified 78 distinct discussions by kindergarten teachers about play and academic training in kindergarten, on seven online teacher message boards, and analyzed them qualitatively. She found that almost all of the teachers agreed about the benefits of play for children and that most expressed concern about the conflict between children’s needs for play and the pressure to restrict play in order to teach academic skills.

Pressures from “the system” with mandated policies

Many teachers explained that, because of policies mandated by NCLB and Common Core, they have no time for play in their classroom. They reported feeling overwhelmed by the attempts to raise the academic skills of little children who aren’t ready for such skills. Teachers further lamented that there is no time even for traditional activities beyond play — “no more time for show and tell, no time for holiday and special crafts projects, not enough time for daily music and movement activities, the list goes on.” Some feared that snack time was going to be taken away, because, as one put it, “it takes at least 10 minutes and with our new math mandated 70 minutes per day, there just is not time.”

Pressures from principals

The system, of course, funnels its way to teachers by way of superintendents and principals. Lynch found that principals were very frequently mentioned, usually in a negative light, in the discussions she analyzed.

For example, one teacher wrote, “My P[rincipal] said, ‘They are not in kindergarten to color and play.’” Another wrote, “My new P was appalled to see housekeeping centers and blocks. I got in trouble because I was completing mandatory individual testing on the sixth day of school and let my kids play with math manipulatives for 20 minutes while I did this.”

Another teacher described how, when she was moved to a new classroom, the principal threw away her entire closet full of play materials, despite the teacher’s protest. Still, another wrote about how she had the kids sitting on the floor singing “Farmer in the Dell" when the superintendent walked in and said, “You are going to stop singing and start teaching, right?”

Those teachers whose principals or superintendents allowed some play in kindergarten spoke of themselves as “lucky” and worried about what would happen if that person were replaced. One, for example, wrote, “I am blessed to have an assistant superintendent of elementary ed with an early-childhood background. She is extremely supportive of developmentally appropriate kindergarten classrooms.”

Pressures from other teachers

Some kindergarten teachers, whose classrooms are located in elementary schools, said they felt looked down upon by the teachers of the higher grades if they allowed their students to play, or sing, or do other nonacademic things. One wrote, “One of our K teachers was made fun of by other teachers because the kids sang too much.” Another wrote, “I will never forget the first-grade teacher telling me that by January our whole day should be spent in our seats doing paper-and-pencil activities to prepare them for first grade.”

Pressures from parents

Parents are yet another source of pressure the kindergarten teachers described. For example, one teacher wrote, “So many preschools build up a lot of hype about how academic they are in an effort to entice parents to send their children to their preschool. They give parents the wrong message. It confuses parents when their children come into kindergarten and they see the kitchen area, blocks ... The parents think their children aren’t learning if they aren’t doing paper-and-pencil tasks.”

Fighting the pressures

Many of the teachers described themselves as “battling” their administrators in order to preserve play. They said they were continuing to allow play in their classrooms, even though doing so got them repeatedly into trouble with the school administration. One wrote, as advice to another, “I’ve considered myself a bit of a rebel during all of the foolishness that’s been going on in our state and in our classrooms for the past few years. I hope you will not buckle under the pressure — even though currently it is very scary to ‘buck the system.’ If we don’t stay strong, though, the system is going to beat us down.”

Some reported an end-run approach: To preserve some play, they used labels designed to replace the p-word with terms that sounded academic. They might retain their old play corner in the room by calling it a “developmental center,” or “work center,” or “active learning center”—anything but "play." Along these same lines, one special ed teacher managed to retain naptime by relabeling it “Sensory Differentiation Time."

Before ending, I should note, not all of the teachers in Lynch’s study supported the retention of play. Those teachers become yet another pressure working against those kindergarten teachers who wish to retain play. One teacher wrote that kindergarten teachers who permit play are simply being “lazy.” Of course, the selective process of hiring and firing teachers to fit the horrible guidelines is going to increase the number of anti-play kindergarten teachers over time.

How sad it will be when nobody remembers that children once played.

And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post at the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.

For more, see Free to Learn and Alternatives to School; you can also join me on Facebook.

More from Peter Gray Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today