One Little Word (OLW) · play · writing workshop

Beth’s One Little Word for 2016

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This week, my colleagues and I at Two Writing Teachers are participating in a little new year’s tradition we have, which is to name our One Little Word for the year. This year, my choice was easy.

Play is at the top of my list for 2016, and I want to shout it from the rooftops.

There has been a hailstorm of articles in recent years proclaiming that these are dark days for educators and children in early childhood. Stories abound with ominous titles such as, “The decline of play in preschool,” “How schools ruined recess” and “A very scary headline about kindergarteners.” I can’t blame people for being upset. I’ve visited many schools where recess has officially been banned, blocks and sand tables have been put out with the trash, and in some schools it is a rare occasion that anybody sings or dances anymore in a classroom.

Many (parents, educators, and pundits alike) place the blame squarely on the Common Core State Standards. They claim that never before have young children been required to do the work that they are now required to do, that kindergarten is the “new first grade.” The pressure of tests and teacher evaluations leaves educators little or no choice but to give up play to make way for academics, so they say.

kidsplayingI’m just going to say it. Schools are doing themselves an incredible, unbelievably ironic disservice by shoving aside play in the name of literacy standards. As researcher Nell Duke has stated, pitting play against literacy is a false dichotomy. It’s not either/or. The way to teach literacy is to provide time for kids to play, talk, dance and sing their little hearts out!

I do not see how play and emergent reading are mutually exclusive. Reading and writing need not be joyless or unplayful. In fact, reading and writing must be full of joy, and choice, and creativity if there is to be any success at all in the early years. Don’t believe me? Decades of research has well-documented the important positive effects of various types of play in the classroom. This study supports play. This landmark study discusses talk and vocabulary. This article supports singing. This one is about joy — yes, joy.  To my knowledge, there is is no research that refutes the importance of play.

bubblesThoughtful early literacy instruction includes dramatic play, reading aloud, lots of choices of books to look at and talk about, open-ended choices, more talk, drawing, singing, moving, building, and making things. This sets children up on their journey as readers and writers. Literacy instruction for young children is not, should not, be defined by seat work done in silence. Yikes.

When I read about preschools and kindergartens around the country instituting worksheet or basal driven “instruction” I want to bang my head on the table. What are you doing?! Why?! Nowhere in the CCSS does it say how you should teach. In fact on page 7 of the CCSS, in the section titles “What is Not Covered by the Standards,”  number one on the list is:

  1. “The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.” (CCSS p. 7)

Nowhere in the entire document does it say anything about worksheets, or giving up recess, or getting rid of the dramatic play area. The standards, when demystified, articulate what many educators have generally expected kindergarteners to learn for decades.

kidsplaying2Obviously, I am a huge proponent of early literacy instruction, as are most literacy experts. Simply because there is a designated time of day for reading and writing does not mean that a dark cloud of academic drudgery must roll over the classroom during those times. Goodness gracious! Get out the beautiful read-alouds and big books, get out the songs, bring out the paper and staplers and Flair pens, and fill up some baskets of beautiful books for kids to pour over and talk about.

So in 2016 I’m on a crusade. My one little word for 2016 is play. Join me in support of play and literacy by leaving a comment expressing your literacy play-related experience, concerns, and thoughts!

19 thoughts on “Beth’s One Little Word for 2016

  1. “But tell me, where do the children play?” – Cat Stevens
    It saddens me that Gavin will be entering kindergarten in a time when schools do not understand young children’s fundamental need to learn through play and exploration. I hope that educators like you who value and praise play can influence the tides and bring balance back to literacy instruction!


  2. Beth, I have so many feelings about this post! I taught kindergarten for ten years and now have preschool age children. My son turned 5 in October and was eligible to start kindergarten, but I didn’t want to send my four year old to first grade, which is really what I feel kindergarten has become. In my early days as a kindergarten teacher, learning about Dr. Jean Feldman ( revolutionized how I taught kindergarten. She was all about songs and movement and had so much brain-based research to back up what she was doing! My kindergarten students did the Macarena to learn the months of the year and we sang and danced our way through learning all sorts of literacy and math concepts. I attended a few of Dr. Jean’s workshops and felt so excited by the way she made learning come alive in ways that tapped into multiple intelligences. I even presented a portfolio to the Assistant Superintendent and my principal about incorporating games and play to teach literacy and math concepts. It was all so much fun and very meaningful. When I went out on maternity leave in the fall of 2010, the world shifted and when I returned in the fall of 2011, it seemed kindergarten was changing. Where students were originally expected to learn 27 sight words for the year, now they were being held accountable for 100. Teachers’ livelihoods were resting on how many letters and sounds five year olds could bark out in a minute’s time. Reading levels were also connected to teacher evaluation scores. There was so much pressure on five year olds to learn and teachers were feeling worried about their evaluations being linked to students who might not be developmentally ready for all of this. Perhaps it was the interpretation, but I can’t help but feel not so lovey towards the Common Core and all the rigor talk that came with it. Giving multiple choice tests to kindergarten students broke my teacher heart and that is the reality of kindergarten today in many places. I am so glad to see educators like you and Kristi Mraz speaking up for early childhood learning and playful experiences. Countries like Finland don’t even start formal reading instruction until students are 7 and research has shown that reading in kindergarten/first grade does not necessarily lead to being a stronger reader in later years. Why must we insist 5 year olds read at level D or E in June? Why should young children be labeled as behind for not reaching that arbitrary milestone? I will be very interested in where your PLAY crusade takes you! Thank you so much for writing and sharing this post.


  3. I LOVE the passion in this post and absolutely support your crusade! I still want my 5th graders to play each day…and it is absolutely what I know my own 1st grade son needs! Thank you!


  4. I read your post early this morning and have been thinking about it all day. It’s been making me think of the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Mis ( You’re on a crusade to bring play back to early childhood classrooms. I cannot think of a better mission to have for the year because it matters so much for proper development, as well as for future success in school.


  5. I love this. I think play and learning are often kept away from each other, especially after a certain age. I’ve recently learned about the importance of block play in literacy. A program in our community helps teach parents how to help their children play. I’m amazed that grown-ups need to learn this!

    A friend of mine, Ann Kroeker, is hosting a #playproject for adults in January, especially for writers and other creative people. You might be interested in seeing what she’s doing here:

    Happy New Year, and keep playing!


  6. Love this! My daughter’s kindergarten teacher sets aside some days as “old fashioned kindergarten” due to more and more mandates and pressures put on emergent schooling.


  7. Yell it from the mountaintops, sista!

    I believe this with every fiber of my being. I would not want my own daughters in a school where there is no play. Play matters. This is such an important post and such a great OLW!


  8. Yay for play! Two of my three children are adults and I have seen the decline of play in their school lives. My youngest was the first to have all day kinder. I am so grateful for educators’ like you that advocate for play. Play matters, play is work for our littlest ones!


  9. Thank you for this! It reaffirms my belief that reading and writing should be joyful and fun! Elementary school should be a place of wonder and excitement. And the more the teacher knows how to bring play/fun into the teaching of standards, the happier everyone will be:)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bravo to you for saying things we are all thinking. I would add to your post the idea that if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable with “play” in the classroom, it ain’t gonna’ happen! Teachers must give themselves permission to play and take back the joy of teaching.


  11. This is the main topic of my blog and my goal for 2016 is to highlight real play experiences and demonstrate the learning that is taking place through these moments. I wish you the best!


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