All Work and No Play in Kindergarten?

Speech-language pathologists are very familiar with the social, emotional, cognitive, and communicative importance of play for young children.

Those of us who work in schools also know that opportunities for play are decreasing in our kindergarten classrooms.

ID-10062109Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

A study published in January, 2016 by researchers at the University of Virginia analyzed results from a survey of 2,500 kindergarten and first grade teachers nation-wide. Survey responses were part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Researchers compared teacher responses from 1998 and 2010 to evaluate how kindergarten and first grade classrooms have changed over that period of time. 1998 was chosen as the starting year because it was before No Child Left Behind was implemented. Researchers analyzed changes in teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, curricular focus and time use, classroom materials, pedagogical approach, and assessment practices. These are some of their most interesting findings:

School Readiness

  • In 1998, 31% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that kindergarteners should learn to read by the end of the school year compared to 80% of teachers in 2010.
  • 33% more teachers believed students should know the alphabet before starting kindergarten in 2010 than in 1998
  • Overall, researchers found increases in teacher expectations regarding every single measure of school readiness

Curricular Focus and Time Use

  • While time spent teaching literacy, science, and social studies does not significantly change between 1998 and 2010, time spent teaching music and art significantly decreases. In 1998, 34% of teachers taught music daily and 27% of teachers taught art daily, compared to 16% and 11% respectively in 2010.
  • In general, researchers found increases in the time spent covering topics that were considered “difficult” or “advanced” in 1998 in math and literacy and decreases in topics covered in science and social studies.

Classroom Materials

  • The percentage of teachers who reported having an art area, dramatic play area, a science or nature area, or a water or sand table in their classrooms dropped by  21-29%.

Pedagogical Approach

  • The percentage of teachers who reported children spending 1 hour per day or more on child-directed activities decreased by 14% from 54% in 1998 to 40% in 2010.
  • The percentage of teachers who reported 3 hours or more of teacher-directed, whole group instruction per day more than doubled from 15% in 1998 to 32% in 2010.
  • Both in half day and full day programs, the use of worksheets and textbooks significantly increased.
  • The percentage of teachers who reported student participation in P.E. did not significantly change, and the percentage of teachers who reported daily recess increased by 9%.

Assessment Practices

  • Researchers found 20% and 22% increases in the percentage of teachers who found student achievement relative to classmates and student achievement relative to local, state, and professional standards “very important” or “essential.”

The authors of this study caution readers to consider the date of survey results when drawing conclusions about this study. Survey results are now 6 years old and therefore cannot be expected to accurately depict what is happening in our kindergarten classrooms in 2016. Additionally, like most major research studies, this survey is only a sample.

However, in considering this research, we cannot deny that a major shift occurred in the focus of kindergarten – a shift toward an emphasis on literacy and math and away from play-based learning and exploration. Our kindergarteners are spending less time playing and more time in teacher-directed instruction. Opportunities for art and music have decreased. Academic expectations have significantly risen and the importance of achievement testing has increased.

What is the impact of this change in focus? What happens when kindergarten becomes the new first grade?  In favor of play-based learning, The Alliance for Childhood published a lengthy report (72 pages!) called Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School. I plan to explore these questions and examine the power and importance of play in learning in my next blog post, but I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

You can read NPR’s summary of the study here: More Testing, Less Play: Study Finds Higher Expectations For Kindergartners

Thanks for reading!


One thought on “All Work and No Play in Kindergarten?

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