Teacher Voice

Setting A Floor, Not a Ceiling: Balancing Rigor and Play

As a preschool teacher, I am constantly searching for new and innovative ways to challenge my students academically, while also engaging them in age-appropriate play. Teaching in a Chicago public school that serves pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students, I have a unique opportunity to see the effects of early childhood education. What students learn even as early as preschool can be a catapult to higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills in the upper grades, as well as an opportunity to play and explore the world around them.

What About Play?

According to a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, play-based learning in early-childhood education is increasingly abandoned for “the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades.” Though I recognize my own limitations as a new teacher, the most effective instructional methods I have learned through training and observed in the classrooms of veteran teachers is a strategic balance between rigor and play. “Free choice time” is a typical facet of most early childhood classrooms. A traditional preschool room is sectioned off into areas including the blocks center, science and discovery center and housekeeping center. Here, students are able to use imaginative play and specific toys to learn through exploration, building and conversing with peers. In my teacher training programs, I was provided with a multitude of methods to use free choice play as a way to build higher level vocabulary and number sense, as well as to increase phonemic awareness. Student voice is often incorporated into free choice play, as students are able to determine the direction of their own learning. Currently, in the classrooms of my fellow preschool teachers, students are learning about money and counting through a dramatic play center transformed into a grocery store, discovering horticulture and science by designing a classroom “flower shop,” and in another classroom students are studying outer space by making an interactive planetarium.

Finding the Balance

With the importance of high-quality early childhood education being spotlighted across our nation, I also feel a personal responsibility to expose my students to the language, vocabulary and mathematical concepts that are appropriately rigorous for 4- and 5-year-olds. At my school, teachers in all grades are innovating around the concepts found in Ron Ritchhart’s research and his book, “Making Thinking Visible.” Through this teacher-driven professional development, I have been able to collaborate with kindergarten teachers to study Common Core standards and understand how the thinking of our youngest learners can be expressed in a variety of fun and interactive ways, that also reach learners at the appropriate developmental level. In my preschool classroom, student thinking and learning is “made visible” through a curriculum I adopted and implemented called “Math Talks.” Each day, students are paired on the carpet with a partner as they discuss with one another a question related to a kindergarten Common Core math standard. NardoinClassroom In this photo, students discuss the various ways one can make the number 10 using their fingers as manipulatives. These lessons last no more than 10 minutes each day and incorporate listening, speaking, reasoning and critical thinking into our daily schedule. Using the Common Core and other academic approaches in early education sets a floor, not a ceiling. Play is vital to the freedom and creativity of young children, but it can be coupled with standards-based learning. By setting rigorous, yet achievable and developmentally appropriate goals for my students, I am challenged as a new educator to be more intentional and reflective of the needs and interests of each of my kids.
Alexandra Nardo is an early childhood educator in Chicago Public Schools. She is a Teach For America corps member and a teacher at the Dewey School of Excellence.
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Nardo
Alexandra Nardo is an early childhood educator in Chicago Public Schools. She is a Teach For America corps member and a teacher at the Dewey School of Excellence. Alexandra holds a bachelor’s in political science and public affairs from Ohio State University. She has interned with the U.S. Department of Education, StudentsFirst, Senator Sherrod Brown and Teach For America. Alexandra is ...

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