Saturday, January 14, 2017

Playing With Measurable Outcomes

     If you read here often, I'm sure you are aware that I strongly believe the early years are meant to be a time of joy, of building relationships, of developing those "soft skills" of collaboration, communication, social skills, resilience, "grit."

     But I recognize that kids need a certain amount of academic preparation. They need to enter kindergarten with certain measurable skills. Realize that when I say this, I may not mean it in in quite the same was as other's might. I don't agree that all children should be expected to progress in exactly the same way or at exactly the same rate or that a checklist of arbitrary skills is an indication that a child is necessarily on track. But I do think the standards are worth a re-read - they may not be asking exactly what we think they are... and the best way to ensure the quality education we want for our children is, in fact, PLAY (and the standards back this up - don't believe me? Take a moment to read).

   I've spent some time recently reading over our state's standards for early childhood education. They can be found here in their entirety if you're interested:, as I have only highlighted some of the standards that most concern me in our modern educational climate. I believe all the standards are important, but felt that the readers at home would get bored with reading the entire document here on my blog.

In the very first state standard, we ask that children "engage in play-based learning to explore, investigate, and acquire knowledge about themselves and their world, four year olds are expected to "show curiosity, interest and a willingness to learn new things and try new experiences."  We also require them to "choose a multi-step task and complete it on their own."

We are asked to provide children with choice, with autonomy, with a chance to explore. Are we doing this? Can this be found in a worksheet?

    I wonder how we support the development of these skills and measure children's success in these areas without sufficient time and freedom to feel curious, to be interested, to find new experiences, to make their own choices? How will they complete things on their own if we don't provide many opportunities for them to do so, with adults removing their own agendas in order for children to create their own? How will children develop the ability to play purposefully and meaningfully without long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to strengthen these skills?

     For standard A2, we want children to "demonstrate attention, engagement, and persistence in learning." We expect four year olds to "stay engaged with others, objects, and activities despite interruptions or disruption" and to "plan and complete tasks and activities."

The standards aren't asking them to follow directions, to write on the lines... they're asking them to be persistent in pursuing their own learning goals.

     Are we providing children with sufficient opportunities to develop their own ideas and ask their own questions? Are we protecting their time from unnecessary interruptions and distractions? Is the daily schedule set up in such a way that children are able to see their chosen projects through to their conclusion?

Standard AL 3 asks children to "recognize, understand, and analyze a problem and draw on knowledge or experience to seek solutions."

Standard AL 4 asks that children "demonstrate creative thinking when using materials, solving problems, and/or learning new information." A four year old child should be able to "express unique ideas and approach tasks and experiences with flexibility, imagination and inventiveness and gather information and ask complex questions in order to understand a new or familiar concept."

Are we giving our children enough space, enough time, to hone these skills? Are we stepping back and allowing them to gain the practice, and the confidence, needed to make their own decisions and find their own solutions? In order for our children to invent, to create, we as teachers and parents will need to hold back out judgments and directives. We need to support  their wonder, share in their joy, applaud their successes and refrain from intervening. You cannot create or invent for someone else. You cannot intervene without robbing them of the chance to solve their own problems.

We want students to " develop an appreciation for music and participate in music and movement activities that represent a variety of the cultures and the home languages of the children in the classroom" and to "create various forms of visual arts." Students are expected to express thoughts and feelings through movement and musical activities" and "create artistic works that reflect thoughts, feelings, experiences, or knowledge using different materials, tools and techniques."

We need them to be able to "observe and/or describe what they like and do not like about various forms of art and how it makes them feel."

     How are teachers finding time during a typical school day for students to dance freely to a variety of musical styles, to experiment with and thoroughly experience a variety of artistic mediums, to view and discuss many styles of authentic art? Are we ensuring that they have the time, materials and freedom to truly express themselves through their creations?  Are children allowed to choose their own materials and create as they wish, valuing the process and creating something that is truly their own? Are they given the freedom to play and experiment with art materials so they are comfortable and familiar with them - how the colors blend, how the brush moves across the paper, the thickness of the lines, the richness of the hue? What is the texture - how does it feel on paper? On skin?

      Are they allowed to interpret musical selections through movement; to dance as the music moves them and to experience the emotional power of authentic music of all varieties, not just "kids' music," but classical, folk,  and popular music from many cultures and time periods?

How do we measure students' grasp of these concepts without giving them the autonomy to freely express themselves? 

This cannot come in brief moments when "we have time." It must be part of the overall culture of the classroom, the typical flow of the day. It should be joyful. It should be relevant.

     By age three or four, most children can rote count to twenty and further - useful for such games as Hide and Seek - and recognize concepts such as first, last, before, after, next (necessary when bickering over who gets to go down the slide next or who will be first to wash hands). Counting tangible objects  is useful as well - we must ensure that everyone has the same amount of crackers, that there are enough chairs at the snack table (or not enough if there's a disagreement going on), or that MY tower is TALLEST by counting the number of blocks in each for comparison. These are expectations of the preschool standards, and rightly so. I hope children are getting enough authentic opportunities to apply these concepts during their school day.

     Are we supporting these experiences in our classroom routines and conversations? Are children allowed to lead? Are we answering their questions as they are asked? 

     Students are expected to "describe measurable attributes (length and weight) of objects and materials, using comparative words," "identify/name simple measurement tools and describe what they are used for (e.g., ruler measures length, scale measures weight), and "participate in measurement activities using standard measurement tools to measure the length and weight of objects and materials (ruler, scale, measuring cup)."

 Are we providing children with tools and authentic opportunities to explore and understand these concept?

     The science standards ask the very most of children, and it is here that I fear our traditional educational environments really hinder our students' learning.

     We want the children to be able to "develop the ability to carry out the scientific inquiry process (ask questions, predict, make observations, explain observations, and draw conclusions)," including the abilities to "use all five senses to observe living things, objects, materials, changes that take place, and relationships, describe what they see, hear, and are able to touch in the environment and group materials/objects according to observed features, and use simple tools to investigate and gather information on living things, objects, materials, and changes that take place (e.g., magnifying glass, sifter, magnets)."

     They require that four year olds are able to "ask why and how questions and offer ideas about living creatures, objects, materials and changes they see, hear and/or feel, [and] participate in simple scientific investigations." We expect them to " observe and describe properties of objects and materials, and how objects and materials can be combined or can change from one form to another (e.g., ice melting to a liquid), explore and use simple tools and machines (e.g., hammers, levers, pulleys, ramps, etc.), ... observe and talk about sources of energy and how they affect objects and materials (e.g., lights, bells and other sources of sound, etc.) and watch how balls, toys and other objects move and use different strategies to change their speed of motion."

     Students need to "explore, observe, and describe a variety of living creatures and plants. classify living creatures and plants into categories according to at least one characteristic, carry out classroom routines to care for living creatures and/or plants with limited direction from adults (e.g., feed the fish or hamster, water plants in the classroom), describe and follow guidelines for how to interact with living creatures appropriately (e.g., hold the hamster gently, observe the fish without tapping the fish bowl), describe plants’ and living creatures’ life cycles, use basic vocabulary to name and describe plants and living creatures and use basic vocabulary to describe similarities and differences between living creatures and plants."

     Are we providing our preschool aged children with enough time outdoors in nature to observe and investigate plants and animals? Are they consistently experiencing the seasonal changes through authentic immersion in the out of doors? Are they given the time, space and appropriate materials to wonder about light, sound and stages of matter? Are they given the freedom to wonder and develop experiments to answer their questions about the world? Are they allowed to use real tools? Can they use their bodies freely and manipulate objects in their environments to better understand the laws of physics?

I believe in the value of play because I believe that the early years should be joyful. They should be filled with wonder and loving relationships and excitement.

Many people counter this with an argument for "a balance between play and learning."

This is more than a false dichotomy, it is ludicrous. Striving for a "balance between play and learning" is counterproductive. We take away joy and we take away learning when we try to limit children's opportunities to play and lead their own learning rather than to create a rich, loving environment where children can be free to learn.

We should not worry that play gets in the way of learning. This is foolish.

Play IS learning to the child.

Frankly, I worry that the typical classroom lacks the depth that can be found in play.

It lacks the authenticity.

It lacks the heart and soul.

It lacks the relevancy.

Only when learning is child-led is it truly meaningful.

Only when we recognize that the curriculum is our children and the classroom is the world around us will we be able to "cover the standards" and make them really stick. 

As the late Bev Bos said so beautifully, "if it hasn't been in the hands, the body and the heart, it can't be in the mind."

Let's teach our youngest students with that in mind.

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