childhood ends at kindergarten?

There is an overwhelming amount of research showing that children learn best through play.  However, according to the reasoning of an influential, yet ignorant few, apparently “childhood” actually ends around four years old!  Too often, educational stakeholders impose an adult work ethic on the classrooms of young children. Children are clearly not small adults, yet often our classroom expectations reflect that way of thinking.  We would not expect a beginning pianist to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. We would not expect a child who has just mastered the tricycle to race in the Tour de France.  Why on earth would we expect young children to have the skills and stamina to learn and behave like adults?     

Here is a surprise to some: childhood does not end at 4 or 5 or even 6 or 7.  Early childhood is commonly defined as 3 to 8 years old, and Middle childhood as 9 to 11 years old.  Another interesting newsflash: research shows that play and other self-directed activities are essential to meaningful learning throughout our entire lives.  Brain neuroplasticity occurs most profoundly in infancy and early childhood (again, birth to 8-years-old,) but research shows that the formation and pruning of neural connections actually continue throughout our lives.  


Perhaps, instead of falling victim to recent “push-down” academic pressures, we should, in fact, consider a robust “push-up” play policy! 

“Play during the teen years and into adulthood helps the brain develop even more connectivity, especially in the frontal lobe which is the center for planning and making good decisions.”  The Benefits of Play, By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

dancing penguins


I once knew a sweet and dedicated teacher who spent hours creating what she considered “learning through play.”  They were mostly sight-word activities on themed paper.  Cute, themed paper and pencil tasks.  She proudly informed me that they included “play”: cutting and gluing letters to make words.  These tasks were mandatory, teacher-directed, product-driven, with no choices or variation. But, because the worksheet had dancing penguins and involved the children doing more than sitting, she considered it “learning through play.”  I’m not saying that what this dedicated teacher was doing was not a fun way to motivate kids to work on sight words.  We all need more fun in our lives!   But it wasn’t play.  Neither are “fun” songs that help you memorize lists of facts.  Adding song and dance to the day is certainly fun, and has value, but all of these things are not play- they are playful.  These playful activities are not a replacement for play any more than looking at someone’s pictures of a recent vacation is like having been there.  ”Don’t these pictures of me in Hawaii make you feel like you are actually there?”  Um, no not really.  

The first requirement of authentic play is that it is freely chosen.  Just because you, as the teacher, believe your students will enjoy something, it doesn’t redefine that activity as play.  Have you ever been invited to or involved in an activity that others find fun, but you consider boring, or even torturous?  Here are some examples of activities people enjoy: skydiving, partying at a high-end nightclub, tailgating, spending an afternoon at an art museum, rock climbing, binge-watching sitcoms, scrapbooking, line dancing, camping, a day at the beach, gardening, spending a weekend at a casino, preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for 30, singing karaoke, pet sitting, visiting an exotic destination, horseback riding, and paintball fighting.  If you could choose one, what would it be? Would your spouse have chosen the same thing or your neighbor? As individuals, our preferences vary widely! Our students are no different. They may politely or genuinely enjoy what their teachers have chosen for them to do. Or they may be indifferent, or find it torturous! But, in order for something to be authentically play, it must first be freely chosen, not chosen by others for you, no matter how well-intentioned.  We certainly need more dancing penguins in our lives, but they are no substitute for authentic play! 

Play on, my friends! 


In today’s world, many parents do not appreciate the importance of free play or guided play with their children and have come to think of worksheets and other highly structured activities as play.‍  –PEDIATRICS Volume 142, number 3, September 2018 5 Downloaded from by guest on December 31, 2018


an assessment game-changer

When I first started teaching kindergarten, I followed a school purchased math program, which began with zero and systematically marched forward laying the foundations of early number sense.  I soldiered through each scripted lesson, ignoring the fact that many of my students could already recognize most, if not all, of these early numbers. It didn’t take long to realize that this was an unnecessary waste of time.  However, before Play-Based Centers, I just didn’t feel I had the time to check in with each student individually to assess their early math skills. It was difficult enough to find time to do post-lesson assessments, let alone pre-tests or mid-topic assessments to check for understanding.  In general, it is extremely challenging to do whole-class assessments with early elementary students. And some assessments simply must be completed one to one or in very small groups. What was I supposed to do with the rest of the students while I assessed one at a time?!

Play-Based Centers is an assessment game-changer.  Now during daily PBC block, while the students are actively engaged in their play, I can quickly and easily complete whatever assessments are needed.  

For example, in early September, I did mini push-ins during PBC, asking each student to identify numerals on flashcards.  It took about 30 seconds per student and I soon had timely data showing exactly who knew what. This was a quick, informal assessment that immediately informed my teaching plans.  I now knew which numbers to review during whole-class instruction, as well as which students should be pulled during PBC for some additional pre-lesson support.  

This is one of the many reasons I love PBC- it helps me to work smarter, not harder! 

Play on my friends!


bleeding potatoes


Play Based Centers is a chance for me to really notice my students.  Not only do I gain valuable insights into their academic, social and emotional skills, but also who they are as individuals.  Their concerns and fears, their interests and preferences . . .  

I grab a clipboard and do a quick Ch.E.C.K.-in at the Whiteboard Center.  Two students are there. Talia and Kedra are drawing what appears to be potatoes but turns out to be volcanos.  I say, “You’re working well together! Tell me about your drawings.” Talia beams and responds eagerly, pointing to various parts of his picture.  He concludes by pointing out a volcano vent. I smile and nod supportively as he labels the vent with a large “V.” We had a mini-lesson about labeling in writer’s workshop last week, and I’m glad to see Talia independently putting the skill into practice.  I make a note and then turn to Kedra, a quiet ELL, who is intently watching his friend. Kedra is a BICS learner who has mostly been silent since the start of the year. I ask, “Are you also drawing a volcano, Kedra?” He nods, and then points to his own picture, chirping “Vent!”  He labels his picture as well. “Awesome job, guys!” I say.

There are high fives all around, then I retrieve my red dry erase markers so they can make lava. I recognize that I’m taking a chance by allowing them to use certain materials. However, almost always, the kids rise to the occasion and take responsibility for the materials.  It is well worth an occasional dried out marker to build responsibility and independence skills. I remind the boys to close the lids tightly when they’re done so that the markers won’t dry out. Talia and Kedra beam at each other and continue their pictures. I smile at the growing friendship and make a note to seat Kedra next to Talia when I change the seating chart next week.  PBC gives me valuable perspectives into my students’ ever-changing social preferences and skills. It is enormously useful to have these insights when I am considering student groupings, or in this case, when wanting to use peer-partnering as a strategy for a specific student. I turn back to see the young friends hard at work on their pictures, which now look like bleeding potatoes.

the emperor’s new curriculum

As new academic programs and initiatives are presented with great fanfare during professional development, and the latest and greatest curriculums are paraded down school corridors, whispering can be heard from behind classroom doors.  The Emperor’s new curricula are shocking and many teachers are extremely concerned about the increasing expectations for elementary classrooms. And yet, most teachers are afraid to point out the obvious flaws in these new curricula.  Not surprisingly, the newest teachers are usually silent. They don’t want to be accused of being incompetent, unprepared, or unable to handle the expectations their schools and districts have set for their young students.  And often, seasoned teachers are silent. They don’t want to be accused of being ignorant, rigid, or reluctant to embrace the glorious innovations and changes occurring in early education.   

But the fact remains, something is terribly wrong.  Who will be brave and risk criticism? It is the children who tell the truth, often in silence.  Are we listening? Anxiety, stress, disruptive behaviors, decreasing attendance rates, increasing expulsion rates, and most alarmingly, self-harm and suicide are creeping into the lives of our youngest students.  The statistics are a clear sign that something is terribly wrong.  

Question the Emporer’s new curriculum, and pay attention to the alarming statistics which echo the voices of our children.  Most importantly, bring daily play back into the lives of our children.

let them eat (pretend) cake

Decades of solid research confirms that children learn best through play experiences. However, play in early elementary classrooms is rapidly diminishing and on the brink of extinction.  Ask any teacher, what the biggest obstacle to play is, and you are very likely to hear- “We just don’t have time for play; we have to focus on academics.” 

When lowly teachers approach the educational royalty for assistance, the response often ignores the classroom realities.  In a regal, condescending tone, teachers are often told: Well, you should incorporate developmentally appropriate best practices while meeting all academic expectations.”

Um, you aren’t listening.  The reality is that our students are starving for play, and we are watching them, helpless to change the realities of what school has become for our youngest learners.  Don’t you think we want happier, healthier children thriving in more balanced, joyful classrooms? Teachers are daily witnesses to the stress, anxiety, and burnout of the young children in our schools.  At what point do we stop blaming the teachers, who in reality are simply doing what they’re told to do, to the best of their abilities.  
 The real question facing those who want to follow research-based best practice is not should child-directed play be part of early elementary classrooms, but how to effectively incorporate this essential childhood experience, while meeting the ever-increasing academic demands.  Daily Play Based Centers is a first step to bringing back balanced and joyful learning communities.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.   -Mr. Fred Rogers

play is practice

At the start of every school year, I gather my shiny new kindergarten students together for a lesson on why they are in school.  Most of them understand that they are here to learn.  Surrounding that simple word is a complex tangle of questions I am thankful I don’t have to answer.  Who will learn what, and when, and how much, and how do we know, and what will we do if they don’t . . . these are questions that are unraveled just enough to be knitted into dissertations and bundled up into curriculums.  While the experts and educational stakeholders tackle the complicated details, to these young learners, I offer this perspective on our brief time together: “When you were little (ok, littler) you couldn’t do very much. When you were first born- you couldn’t walk or talk.  You got better at these things with practice.  In school, we will practice.  

This makes sense to them and is the seed of an idea we will nurture throughout the year- that of a growth mindset.  We honestly acknowledge and celebrate: Yes, some students are really good at writing their letters, and some students are really good at counting, and some students are really good at being kind friends, and (my personal favorite) some students are really good at lining up quietly.  But we emphatically remind them that everyone can get better at all these things and more, with practice!

Each child walks into school carrying more than a backpack.  They bring with them background knowledge and experiences, natural abilities and inherent challenges.  Every year, elementary teachers perform a kind of educational triage. Determining who needs extra support and practice, and how much.  As educators, we are first-hand witnesses to the astonishing improvement that can be made through extra support and practice.  

And this is exactly what happens during Play Based Centers.  Whether it is targeted practice while working toward Individual Student Goals (ISG) or active learning through free play, daily PBC is an opportunity to practice skills in all domains- communication/ language skills, cognitive skills, motor/ physical skills, and social/ emotional skills.  

In fact, play is practice for life.  Life is hard, we can use all the practice we can get!

the play instinct

I have a pond in my backyard.  By a pond, I mean, slightly larger than a puddle, about the size of a kiddie pool, sort of pond.  Apparently, the previous owners of the house had constructed this mosquito breeding ground themselves.  The first summer we moved in, I “stocked” the pond with a few goldfish in order to keep the mosquito population at a minimum.  Unfortunately, over the winter, the pond froze almost solid, since it isn’t very deep, only about a foot or so. Several dead fish were waiting for me in the spring.  Not pretty. So at the end of the next summer, I came up with an ingenious plan. I decided to rescue the new batch of goldfish before it got too cold and make my kindergarten classroom their winter home.  Perfect! I gathered supplies and prepared for a fish transfer.  

Have you ever tried to catch fish in a pond, with a net?  It quickly became clear that this would be a challenging task.  These fish were fast! An hour later, standing in the middle of the pond, in my knee-high waterproof boots, with my three children creating various distractions from the edges I still hadn’t caught a single fish.  I called it a day, tossing my net on the ground and offering to pay anyone who caught a fish $20. (Never mind that I had only paid 29 cents per fish three months earlier. It’s funny, the shifting value of things. . .)  But even my determined children had no luck that day.  

I had accepted the fate of my energetic, yet doomed goldfish and headed to a pet store to purchase new fish for my classroom aquarium.  While there, I told my story to the salesperson who snickered at my ignorance and naivety. That was when she informed me- when it gets colder, the fish will slow way down.  She assured me that I would be able to scoop them up effortlessly when the temperature dropped a bit more. Some pond owners even transfer them using their hands rather than a net.  And she was right. After a few cold days in October, the fish were easily caught- on the very first try.  

The lesson?  Nature should not be ignored.  Whenever possible, work with, not against nature to get the job done!  Children are like fish.  Ok, not really- children are almost always energetic and don’t slow down when it gets cold. 

But seriously, children have a natural instinct to play.   It is their default mode of being. Play is how children learn about themselves and the world around them.  We can choose to work with this natural play instinct or we can ignore, or even attempt to suppress it. Clearly, it is the wiser course to acknowledge and work with, not against, nature. 

Acknowledging and working with, not against, our young children’s natural play instincts is undoubtedly the wiser course, which would result in more effective and joyful learning communities.  

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.  -Roger von Oech



Once, during PBC block, I observed two students at the Imagination Center.  Tiny, shy Abby and boisterous, overbearing Nick, were certainly unlikely playmates. But they had already spent a good fifteen minutes happily arranging furniture in a dollhouse, and a handful of dolls had been negotiated and divided between them.  Now they were setting the scene. I like to call this metaplay, and it went something like this:  

Nick said, “Pretend I’m the dad and I have to go to work but I can’t find my keys.  And then a robber stole my car. And it’s a mystery.” Abby chirped, “Ok, pretend that I’m from 911.”  Nick began tipping the strategically placed furniture on its side. “And the robber dumped all of the things out to find my car keys, and. . .”  Abby interrupted in alarm- “No, don’t dump the baby crib,” rearranging the block that apparently represented the baby crib, “because the baby is sleeping in there.”  Nick paused, but accepted this demand and continued “ok, pretend. . . .” Amused, I am suddenly reminded of a different kind of “play”- that of adults in an improv group.  The first rule is to accept the other person’s “pretend” and to keep going. But here, shy Abby, half Nick’s size, and definitely half his volume, stopped and altered Nick’s pretend.  For her, tipping the crib was a non-negotiable. The baby was in there. Abby recognized that her ideas mattered, too. And in her play, she was practicing confidence skills and self-efficacy.   And Nick, in order to keep the play going, accepted her demand and continued. He was practicing compromise and perspective taking. In their play, without even realizing it, they were successfully practicing relationship skills– one competency of the five Social and Emotional Competencies recognized as essential for healthy development by C.A.S.E.L.



Love & Play

Play is an essential part of a child’s development and children learn and grow best through rich play experiences.  But what does quality play look like? The word “play” is used so frequently in everyday conversation to mean so many different things.  And defining play is like defining love. We recognize it most clearly by its effects. It is not always well-timed or well controlled. Play cannot be forced, it must be freely entered into.  You cannot reason yourself into play or love. It is or it is not. And it is best when done with abandon. Children are especially good at this, falling in and out of play without a moment’s hesitation.  

The true object of all human life is play. -G. K. Chesterton