Reading David Kohn's "Let the Kids Learn Through Play" this morning, my child advocate's voice asserted itself loudly in my head, greatly surprising me since I'm facing the last week of kindergarten, a time when many teachers are near collapse from exhaustion and the wide range of emotions washing over them. Instead of grumbling incoherently, the voice roared "I've said it before and I'll say it again:"
What I really wish new-to-service teachers, ivory-tower administrators and bubble-boy/girl politicians understood is this: play does not equal "unproductive and non-beneficial fluff time." Rolling over, crawling, standing upright, balancing, walking, running, climbing, and babbling are ALL challenging to the child beginning to develop his or her skills. So too are sharing, negotiating, coming to understand cause and effect, developing patience, and learning to use new tools safely and efficiently, such as pencils, scissors, squeeze glue, buttons on a keyboard, or the fragile skin of technology and books. Don't forget to add broadening language and building stamina to the mix as well, especially because a child's typical work day is full of new tasks, deadlines, social mores, and transitions requiring copious amounts of sustained attention and interaction. Yes, the "school day" IS a work day schedule that young children are introduced to when they start kindergarten, and it's not an easy or immediate adjustment to make. I've always found it ironic that many administrators will tell you that kindergartners "don't need naps" by the end of the school year, though we all know plenty of adults who require rest and down time throughout the day.
Because advocates for developmentally appropriate practice are regarded as old softies, our pedagogy is assumed to be lacking in "rigor," "challenge," and even "standards," likely because we insist on giving our students plastic knives at the play doh center instead of surgical grade scalpels. Well-intentioned (and usually inexperienced) colleagues and administrators bound by asinine funding equations run roughshod over our suggestions, protests, and advice when we dare to express what is obvious to us: young children aren't committing a crime, lacking gumption, failing to perform, or offensive because they're not behaving like short third and fourth graders during their preschool and kindergarten years. Even worse: teachers who don't appreciate or even like all of the incredible things that four, five and six year olds are, take positions where they inflict their distaste, judgement, and severe lack of knowledge regarding child development upon our youngest learners. These adults are easy to recognize: they're the ones complaining in the lounge or staff meetings about how "these little kids just don't get it" or "they just can't DO anything," while those much better suited to the grade and students are expressing how the academic expectations or assessments aren't appropriate matches for the children we teach. Guess which group of teachers is regularly criticized for their point of view?
The development that naturally occurs through play, exploration, partnership, and emotional bonding is not an affliction or unnecessary detour from all things curricular: it's an essential prerequisite for further growth. Children must, with very few exceptions, roll over before they crawl, crawl before they walk, and become acquainted with and develop many more skills that are necessary in order to build a firm foundation upon which their ABC's, 123's, empathy, and life's passions will stand and grow. These stages of skill acquisition occur on a continuum: you don't hopscotch over a few squares to get to the end faster, or interpret the wobbly or full face-plant landing as proof that a child needs ankle braces, ski poles, smaller squares, larger squares, or a stunt double in order to be successful within the grading period allotted. Time, practice, and encouragement, not developmentally inappropriate demands and deadlines, are the initial supports most children need as they continue their journey as brave, capable human beings through play and partnership.