Laura Waters

The ‘False Dichotomy’ of Play and Learning in Kindergarten

Motoko Rich’s article today on the front page of the New York Times, perhaps unwittingly, recites a meme of those who resent higher standards for young students: We’re pushing them too hard and neglecting the importance of play. As such, she captures one of the suburban-urban divisions within educational policy and politics. Some students, like those from the suburban school in Pasadena, Maryland, that she features, live in households where the median family income is $96,000 per year. There, children come to kindergarten well-versed in letters and numbers. But in other schools, especially those that serve students from low-income urban areas, children come to school without these advantages. A teacher in Pasadena says, “I feel like we have been driving the car in the wrong direction for a long time” because kids need “opportunities to play and explore.” Commenting on the adoption of Common Core and its relation to play, Rich writes:
Most recently, more than 40 states have adopted the Common Core, standards for reading and math that in many cases are much more difficult than previous guidelines. In some school districts, 5-year-olds are doing what first or even second graders once did, and former kindergarten staples like dramatic play areas and water or sand tables have vanished from some classrooms, while worksheets and textbooks have appeared.
As such, Rich blithely buys into the false dichotomy that play and learning are mutually exclusive, and that's the overall theme of her article. However, to give credit where credit is due, this is buried in the middle of the article:
Educators in low-income districts say a balance is critical. They warn that unlike students from affluent families, poorer children may not learn the basics of reading and math at home and may fall behind if play dominates so much that academics wither. “Middle-class parents are doing this anyway, so if we don’t do it for kids who are not getting it at home, then they are going to start at an even greater disadvantage,” said Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford.
That’s Rich’s single acknowledgement of one of the hot points surrounding standards and assessments. Do public schools serve all students? Or do they structure learning objectives around one economic cohort that may dominate their enrollment? And how do common standards fit into this? Poorer families, whose views are well-represented in a letter signed by 27 major civil rights organizations, recognize the importance of common academic goals and annual assessments. Wealthier families don’t need them and so they belittle them. I don’t know the answer to this, except that the worst solution is to calibrate standards and accountability based on community wealth. And, at the very least, New York Times writers shouldn’t fall for some of the rhetoric pushed by those who begrudge efforts to, as they say, level the playing field. Moreover, schools have recognized for a long time, well before the Common Core, that students, even kindergartners, are capable of reading, sitting and listening. Rich ends the article with this quote from a teacher: “With the Common Core, this has been pushed and pushed and pushed that kids should be reading, sitting and listening.” She goes on to say, “Five-year-olds need to play and color. They need to go out and sing songs.” Oy, that dichotomy again.  
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years. An original version of this post appeared on her blog, NJ Left Behind, as Fact-Checking Mokoto Rich of the NY Times on Common Core and Kindergarten.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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