Should Pre-K Classrooms Be “Play-Based” or Have a Common Core Standards -Based Academic Component?

Have you been hanging out with four or five year olds lately?

They vary in size, maturity, literacy and numeracy skills; US schools assign kids to grades by age, some children just turned four and other are almost five, some kids don’t speak a word of English, some haven’t been a few feet away from their mother, others live in shelters, some mothers are teenagers, other caregivers are grandparents. Their vocabulary varies widely, their experiences vary widely. Pre-kindergarten teachers have a daunting task.

The 68 page New York State Foundation Standards for the Common Core gets off to a good start, a long list of what the standards should NOT be used for –

* an assessment tool
* a curriculum
* mandate specific teaching practices,

However, when you click on the ELA pre-k standards you find a checklist. See a section of the ELA pre-k standards below:

* With prompting and support, students will compare and contrast two stories relating to the same topic.
*. With prompting and support, students will make cultural connections to text and self.
* Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.
* With prompting and support, make connections between self, text, and the world around them (text, media, and social interaction).

The Engage NY website does provide yearlong curriculum maps (See maps here).

On one hand the state rejects an assessment checklist and on the other hand the state provides a checklist.

An experienced pre-k teacher was reminiscing about her first week of teaching a pre-k class,

“Two children were crying, a child having a fit flailing on the floor, two kids hung onto me and followed me around the room, the biggest kid took whatever wanted, a bully, and, suddenly one child shouted, “Juan made a pee-pee,” and poor Juan was standing in the middle of the room as the puddle grew. It was the toughest few weeks of my life,”

Where will the department find hundreds, perhaps thousands of pre-k teachers? Will the teachers be adequately training prior to the beginning of the school year? A scant three weeks away.

There is a major dispute over the content in pre-k and kindergarten classrooms. Should the classrooms be play-based or should the classrooms have an academic component?

The supporters of play argue,

Those outside the early childhood profession who have little understanding of children may be wondering why we place so much emphasis on play. As early childhood educators, we are often called on to justify scheduling two hours of play in a kindergarten program or encouraging children’s play all day in a preschool. Many parents do not understand or appreciate the kind of outcomes that are possible with children’s play. Those who have studied children’s play and those educators who spend their days observing children at play can describe many rich benefits of play.

* Children develop a sense of competence.
* Children are able to practice skills.
* Children are able to develop socially
* Children are able to solve problems and make decisions in a safe situation
*Children gather and process information.
*Children express emotions, release tension, and explore anxiety-producing situations

In addition to the general benefits we just listed, there are specific learning outcomes that children achieve easily through play. Children develop their literacy understandings and skills through play, their mathematical concepts through play, and their science appreciations and processes through play. Information about developmental levels of play can guide your observations and enable you to interpret more accurately what you see children doing

Although the Common Core State Standards list specific skills for each grade and others argue that an overemphasis on play does a disservice to children,

Education Week avers,

Recent research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University shows that average reading and math scores of incoming kindergartners from high-income backgrounds are a full standard deviation higher than those of children from families with low incomes. The size of this gap among 5-year-olds is staggering, and reducing it will require efforts on multiple fronts. Access to instruction that is engaging, challenging, and fosters a love of learning is a key ingredient. To suggest that kindergartners should be deprived of the opportunity to engage deeply in learning literacy and numeracy is to sell them short at a crucial moment in their development.

A growing body of research has taught us about the critical role of early exposure to language and literacy for children’s development. We have also documented vast differences in early exposure to language between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. There is strong support for both early-childhood parental interventions and preschool programs as strategies for narrowing these gaps. It seems only logical, then, that a strong emphasis on language, literacy, and reading during kindergarten would be another key component for reducing inequality of opportunity.

In light of the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in kindergarten across the vast majority of states, let’s shift the conversation about “appropriate” early-childhood learning.

Rather than focusing on whether academic content has a place in early-childhood classrooms, let’s focus on how to teach it in a way that is tailored to young learners. Let’s focus on creating engaging, fun, developmentally appropriate learning experiences for all kindergartners, acknowledging the importance of embedding enriching language and numeracy experiences within those environments.

Are play-based classrooms the developmentally appropriate approach to teaching four and five years olds or do the “vast differences in early exposure to language between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers” require an emphasis “enriching language and numeracy experiences”?

Strangely the debate over the content within pre-k classrooms has not arisen in New York City. In the battle over standardized testing tests below grade three are prohibited, although, is a checklist a test? Is the common core, with specific sets of ELA and math standards leaking into pre-k?

The state is providing Core Knowledge curriculum maps, the Engage NY site recommends; however, curriculum decisions are made within school districts.

Pre-k teachers are passionate about their classrooms; it will be fascinating to see whether the Farina administration adopts any of the “play-based” curricula.

In the world of private pre-k education Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and Bank Street are the choices of middle/upper class parents – will the department choose any of these pre-k approaches?

Will the more “academic” approaches associated with the Common Core make up for disadvantages of poverty, or, will the approaches fly in the face of all that we know about child development?

Should be an interesting year.

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3 responses to “Should Pre-K Classrooms Be “Play-Based” or Have a Common Core Standards -Based Academic Component?

  1. If they go with the common core approach, the teachers will have to use electric cattle prods to train the kids and treat them as if they were Marine Corps recruits. And when the cattle prod doesn’t work, they’ll have to take a page from Michelle Rhee’s handbook and put Duct Tape over kids mouths and restraints on arms and legs so the kids can’t move or make noise. Then they can put headsets over ears and pump in all the Common Core crap for hours at a time to make sure these kids get the proper programing for what the private sector, for profit, corporate CEO wants these kids to get so they grow up to be drone consumers who buy on demand and work 20 hour days for (literally) bags of beans and rice washed down with tap water they pay for by the glass..

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  2. Pre-K students must be 4 by Jan 2015. So many are just 3.

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