Children being instructed in focus, balance, physics and joy.

Trying to Close the Achievement Gap, We Have Created a “Play Gap”


File this under The Law of Unintended Consequences, or, more precisely, Force-feeding Young Children Academics Backfires. It comes from an article ershizdrie
in the Washington Post
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, author of Taking Back Childhood:

…The pressure to teach academic skills in pre-K and kindergarten has been increasing since the passage of the No Child Left Behind act 15 years ago. Today, many young children are required to sit in chairs, sometimes for long periods of time, as a teacher instructs them. This goes against their natural impulse to learn actively through play where they are fully engaged–body, mind, and spirit.

Play is an engine driving children to build ideas, learn skills and develop capacities they need in life. Kids all over the world play and no one has to teach them how. In play children develop problem solving skills, social and emotional awareness, self-regulation, imagination and inner resilience….No two children play alike; they develop at different rates and their different cultures and life experiences shape their play. But all children learn through play.

Many urban, low-income children have limited play opportunities outside of school, which makes in-school playtime even more vital for them. But what studies now show is that the children who need play the most in the early years of school get the least. Children in more affluent communities have more classroom play time. They have smaller class sizes and more experienced teachers who know how to provide for play-based learning. Children in low income, under-resourced communities have larger class sizes, less well-trained teachers, heavier doses of teacher-led drills and tests, and less play.

Quite possibly as a result, many kids are getting suspended — in pre-k! And young African-American boys are disproportionately the ones sent home. This can actually affect their whole lives:

What we now call the “school to prison pipeline” — the pathway that leads many young people from school into the criminal justice system — is embedded in the context of racial and economic injustice that has always shaped our nation’s schools. And now, in a misguided effort to close the achievement gap, we are creating a new kind of inequality…We are planting the seeds of disengagement for the young children we want to see succeed and stay in school.

Bottom line: The education world has to come to understand (and believe!) that play IS education, it’s just harder to measure.

Unless you measure it by who remains curious, excited and engaged, and who does not. – L.


Children being instructed in focus, balance, physics and joy.

Children being instructed in focus, balance, social skills, physics and joy.  


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22 Responses to Trying to Close the Achievement Gap, We Have Created a “Play Gap”

  1. Dean October 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    As a Scout leader, I was opposed to both the sit-down-and-learn philosophy, and to the “keep ’em busy all the time” programming at camp.
    To me, it was okay if they were doin’ nuthin’. I recall one boy in camp who was often seen “doin’ nuthin'”, but he was really watching and learning the way in which ants functioned. Didn’t anyone there ever hear of the Insect Study Merit Badge? That’s a good intro to a career in the science of entomology.

  2. Art October 2, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    I hear about this every day. Kindergarten is the new first grade and the kids are so burned out toward the end of the day, some cry because they are so tired. They aren’t allowed true “centers” as we grew up with (kitchen, dress up, etc), They arent allowed naps, they aren’t allowed time to even properly digest what they are learning, and at least half the class is not even close to being ready for even remotely first grade level work. It’s insane. They are talking about bringing standardized testing down to Kinder.

  3. Donald October 2, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

    “Bottom line: The education world has to come to understand (and believe!) that play IS education, it’s just harder to measure.”

    That’s the trouble. There are so many that believe that unless you can measure it, it doesn’t exist.

  4. The other Mandy October 2, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

    This is why we decided to put our kid in Montessori for at least a few years. We visited the local kindergarten (in a school with excellent test scores), and kids go 8:30-3:30 with only a 20-minute recess. For kindergarten! And the tour guide proudly showed off the paragraphs (!) the kids were writing by end of K. I’m happy we have the means for private school but I feel so bad for those kids trapped in chairs all day.

  5. sexhysteria October 2, 2016 at 5:50 pm #

    Structured learning is the best way to destroy children’s desire to learn, and thereby keep citizens as ignorant as possible so they are easy for the powerful to control.

  6. CrazyCatLady October 2, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    When my daughter was in kinder, she cried because they had all of these cool toys – kitchen, blocks, etc….and she NEVER got to play with them. The teacher didn’t even have the kids wash their hands before snack because it took too much time away from instruction. (I talked to my doctor about that one, her daughter was also in the class. The kids ended up using hand sanitizer.) It was so crazy that she actually discouraged kids from going to the bathroom as it wasted time. More than one accident happened because of that “policy.”

    Then there was the homework…in kinder. I hated it. 1st grade also had homework. The teacher was amazing though, but told me “Don’t expect this every year.” I started homeschooling the next year. It was great. There was time for my daughter to play with her friend, to play with her brothers, to sit and read what SHE wanted, and to pursue her own interests. The best thing was, they pretty much got their work done in just a couple of hours….yes, doing a rigorous school at home type of program. So glad that I have had the ability to do that, but I do know that not everyone can.

  7. Rebelmom October 2, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    Reason #247 why we homeschool. I know, not everyone has the means/desire/etc but really and truly it’s one of the best options. Lots of playtime; alone, with siblings and with friends. No worries about idiotic government policies dictating what’s best for our children. Woo hoo!

  8. lollipoplover October 2, 2016 at 9:05 pm #

    We are in a well respected school district and have 1/2 day kindergarten- just 2 1/2 hours a day. Most working parents hate it (needing to pay for more daycare)and tried to get full-day but it really worked for my kids. Homework? They didn’t have any, just suggested play activities that complemented whatever they were learning.
    I liked the afternoon session so I could take them to the park in the morning to play with friends, eat lunch, and then bike over to school to *learn* in the afternoon. It was just enough structure without overdoing it.

    Our school doesn’t give a lot of homework (even my older kids have resource period in school to complete work) and the science program is awesome…tinkering and experimenting and lots of hands on learning. Last see they took apart an old radio. Now they are on composting and collecting trash to see what breaks down and what doesn’t. Education should stimulate the brain and encourage exploration. Worksheets, standardized test packets, excessive homework are a recipe for young learners to hate school.

  9. Beanie October 2, 2016 at 10:04 pm #

    What about play for older kids? Is anyone looking into that? My nine-year-old started complaining this year that third grade was 99% work, 1% recess. I didn’t think much of it until I went to observe in his math class: an hour and forty minutes of teacher-directed seatwork. They got up from their seats one time in the entire 100-minute session. They had almost zero interaction with their fellow students. It was all copy from the magic smartboard and answer in unison, and some raising of hands to answer. It made me so sad, especially when I compared it to my older son’s third grade math class, just two years ago, when the teacher gave a lesson, then turned the kids loose to work together wherever they wanted in the classroom. And that was all in an hour. Were they on task the whole time? Of course not. But they were learning together and having social interaction. Some days they played math games. I’ve always thought that one of the huge benefits of school was being able to learn together and learn from one another. . . that benefit no longer exists at this school.

  10. Backroads October 2, 2016 at 11:41 pm #

    This is a complaint I have with a few teachers at my school. We are low SES in general and year after year struggle with tests. The kindergarten teachers are adamant we keep the early grades pire academic “to help the poor kids”. Well, why isn’t it working?

  11. Tom Adam October 3, 2016 at 12:05 am #

    There is a new movie out by Michael Moore called “Where do We Invade Next?” It is not the typical MM movie full of political statements. It should be required viewing by all people in Education and all law makers in the USA.

    You’ll be shocked by his findings. And if you agree with this article, you will love the movie.

  12. Katie G October 3, 2016 at 6:43 am #

    Does anyone even play review ames with older kids? Maybe it’s just my perspective as having been among the “smart kids” but that was always fun and a break. Goodness, all the way through 6th grade our teachers read aloud for a little while every day. Just…read aloud. I still hear, 20 years+ on, that teacher reading some parts of *Rifles For Watie*

  13. DrTorch October 3, 2016 at 7:49 am #

    Yup, saw this in kindergarten w/ our oldest, pulled him and homeschooled after that.

  14. Avin October 3, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    There was recently a huge uproar in my area because a local school decided to cut recess entirely. Appropriately, the parents freaked out and the school board called a meeting. Now, a 15 minute recess is mandatory in all Jefferson Parish Schools. I think one 15 min recess a day is a joke. We’re fortunate enough to send our oldest to a private Catholic school in Jefferson Parish and even they only get a half hour recess after lunch. Still, it’s better then nothing and unfortunately that’s the circumstances many parents find themselves in, choosing the lesser of two evils

  15. Workshop October 3, 2016 at 9:19 am #

    A cynic (or a conspiracy theorist) might say this is a feature, rather than a bug, of the system.

  16. diane October 3, 2016 at 9:23 am #

    A few years ago at our school, I remember commiserating with another parent about the Tests. She said she understood having it for the schools that were struggling and I exclaimed that those were the children that the testing culture was hurting the most. We need to make sure we say it every time, every chance we get, to disabuse people of the notion that “We don’t need it, but we have to make the poor people have it.”
    If it’s bad for your kid, it’s 10 times worse for the kid who doesn’t have the buffers of the middle class that cushion them from other people’s mistakes.

    I will say that we had another parent who got herself on a district level health and wellness committee, and was able to push through a mandatory 30 min. recess for all elementary schools in our large district. Do all the schools follow it? probably not but it’s on the books and if we get the word out to parents, hopefully they will push back and see that it’s implemented.

  17. HW October 3, 2016 at 10:14 am #

    I am a volunteer reader for kindergarteners in a low-income school in Hartford, CT. What I observe is exactly what is described. The teacher insists that the students act like little tin soldiers– they sit absolutely silent and do their tasks, and are terrified to play or be silly whatsoever. When I compare it to the fun, centers-based, creative, imaginative class that MY kindergarten-aged son gets in his affluent suburban school, my heart breaks.

  18. John B. October 3, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    If I am not mistaken, the “No Child Left Behind” act was a bipartisan effort between President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy. At the time, my grand nephews were young and my niece absolutely HATED that piece of legislation! Didn’t it also eliminate, or at least cut down, on Physical Education classes in many schools? It was just one more thing contributing to the obesity epidemic among American children….sigh.

  19. Elin Hagberg October 3, 2016 at 5:05 pm #

    I live in Sweden and I am glad everything is completely play based until they are 6 and this year is still mostly play based and seen as an introduction year into school and from when they are 7 they have more standard school. Most schools have recess at least once around 10, after they had lunch and once more in the afternoon.

    My daughter is 4 and she goes to day care which is called preschool and has a curriculum but what they learn is based on what every kid needs to learn and there are no standard classes. They have lots of free play outdoors and indoors but also more planned units like “explore the forest”, “experiment with water” or “books from around the world”. They also do things relating to the seasons or holidays. Most of the time however learning comes from playing or children asking questions or teaching each other. My daughter taught the children and teachers about different animals she learned about from a children’s TV program and then the teachers helped her find out more and look for pictures to do different independent crafts with.

  20. Katie G October 4, 2016 at 6:41 am #

    @Donald- In studyin Galileo with my ten-year-old (yes, we homeschool!), I found that he had said (to paraphrase) measure what can be measured, and then find a way to measure everything else. Great for physics, not great for the rest of life.

  21. Backroads October 4, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

    Today the school counselor came in for her counselor lesson. She almost always has a coloring page or something to that effect for the kids to do. As the kids were coloring about emotions, she and I were chatting. She was actually watching to see how the kids were holding their crayons! She then bemoaned to me how some of them were still holding them completley wrong here in 2nd (I too have noticed). She said she still sees this in the upper grades. In her opinion, kids aren’t getting nearly enough fine motor skill practice because it’s all so educational. She actually said this.

  22. BL October 4, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    “In her opinion, kids aren’t getting nearly enough fine motor skill practice because it’s all so educational.”

    Or even not-so-fine motor skills. Have you noticed how many kids walk splay-legged these days? It looks awkward. I don’t remember that when I was young, and I’ve found enough youtube videos from the past to convince me I remember correctly: kids didn’t used to walk like that.