The Role of Play in the Age of Common Core: The Pendulum Is Swinging

I hope you enjoy this second blog by Early Childhood expert Karen Nemeth. In her first blog on the role of play, Karen reviewed the research included in David Kohn’s New York Times article.  In this blog, she is sharing trends in play-based education for young learners in the context of the Common Core.

This is my second post based on the New York Times opinion piece, Let the Kids Learn Through Play. In my last post, I described the advantages of using play-based learning for English learners. In this follow-up, I want to address some of the trends that connect the history of play-based learning to the future of education for ELs in the context of the Common Core. David Kohn doesn’t quite capture this in the first sentence of his article when he hints that the academicizing of kindergarten has only happened in the past two decades. Well before the appearance of NCLB and the Common Core, there were debates about whether early education should be devoted to didactic lessons or free-flowing play. As with many trends in education, the trajectory of play in school has resembled the swings of a pendulum.

My mother was a certified teacher who devoted her career to creative, play-based preschool education. In the 1970s, the parent board at her school started asking that their 3- and 4-year olds be given more in-school lessons and homework that they believed would help the children get ready to succeed in kindergarten. My own daughter’s kindergarten teacher explained 30 years ago that the class would never open the door and play on the clearly visible playground because their literacy curriculum did not allow time for play. When I consulted with a New Jersey school district 10 years ago, I was told that the kindergarten classrooms all had expensive sets of wooden blocks, then a new principal came in and changed the curriculum and instructed the teachers to throw all the blocks out (heartbreaking!). Two years later, a change in principal meant they were all ordering blocks again. Play has come and gone and come back again, but trends for the future may make us see play in a whole new light. Advanced, sophisticated, and deep play has, as I wrote in my last post, many benefits for young learners and most especially for young ELs. Will we see the pendulum bring play back into focus?

In a July webinar hosted by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH), play was one of the key points in the president’s vision for high quality early education as presented by Libby Doggett, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the U.S. Department of Education. She recommended that high quality early education should be less didactic and have more purposeful play. During that same week, Head Start leaders announced the revised Early Learning Outcomes Framework with the advice “we want children to play.”

These educational leaders are not using the word play to mean aimless fooling around. In fact, a fair amount of research has shown that play can actually be quite sophisticated and can result in lasting learning across domains. When play is rich in discussion, negotiation, reenacting stories, and debate, it can actually be an excellent strategy for addressing standards in the Common Core. Read more about this idea in the New America Foundation blog: Why We Don’t Need to Get Rid of the Common Core to Have Play in Kindergarten, by Shayne Cook.

Because play can also be flexible and responsive, it can be even more effective for ELs than teacher-led lessons. Here are some trends to watch:

  • Curriculum models that emphasize sophisticated, play-based learning. Examples include Tools of the Mind, The Creative Curriculum©, and Montessori.
  • Outdoor play. The back to nature movement, with slogans such as “No Child Left Inside,” focuses on the importance of exposure to the natural environment as described in this article by Barbara Kiser, “Early child development: Body of knowledge.”
  • Educational technology and digital media. Increasing availability of software, games, and tablet apps for classroom use have added many digital layers to the possibilities for play and learning for young ELs. Examples include Imagine Learning software, the My Story App for creating sharable stories with voice recording, and easily portable smart pens.
  • Makerspaces and other hands-on learning. New approaches that give students freedom to work in environments designed for creating and exploring hold great promise for young ELs. Without using the word play, these learning strategies are reinforcing the elements of play that are best for EL learning. They can be student directed, collaborative, hands-on, sustained, and conversation driven. This Education Week post explains how maker spaces help ELLs learn more effectively in the Common Core environment.

There are countless policies encouraging the use of play in pre-K, Kindergarten, and beyond. Many leading researchers and thought leaders are encouraging teachers to let go of their control of every word and lesson in their class. Whether it’s outdoor play or indoor play, role play or exploratory play, nature based or digital/media based, we know more about play than we ever have in this field. The question remains whether administrators, policy makers, and vendors can unite around a better understanding about what play has to offer young ELs.

Karen Nemeth is an author, consultant, and presenter focusing on effective early education for dual language learners. She is a consulting editor and author for NAEYC, the co-chair of the early childhood SIG of NABE.  Karen is the author of many books on teaching dual language learners, including: Many Languages, One Classroom, and Many Languages, Building ConnectionsShe coauthored Digital Decisions and New Words, New Friends, a bilingual book for young children, and was editor of  Young Dual Language Learners: A Guide for PreK-3 Leaders.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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