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!