“First you work and then it’s play.”

June 19, 2014

The words of 4-year-old Misty still ring in my ears, as she described her impending rite of passage to kindergarten. When asked what she would do in kindergarten, she replied, “Play and learn. Actually, learn and play, ’cause it’s learn first and then play.”

Misty was one of two dozen “graduating” preschoolers I interviewed in North Carolina and Vermont while researching my (unpublished) dissertation about preschoolers’ perceptions of, and attitudes toward, kindergarten. I wanted to understand and give voice to an important perspective missing from the school readiness debates–the children themselves. I learned much in the process, realizing that even at this early age, children were aware of the distinction between play and work as they prepared to enter “the big school.”

Through their words and drawings, children conveyed that kindergarten would be a learning experience filled with numerous activities.  Very few children expressed any uncertainty about what to expect; the majority had very clear ideas about the activities they would be doing in kindergarten. These activities fell into two categories–learn and play.

The children described learning as the work of kindergarten. They would be working earnestly to acquire new information and skills. Oddly reminiscent of the three R’s of traditional schooling, they described learning activities centered around reading, writing, and arithmetic. They were expecting to be immersed in an academic learning environment which promoted literacy above all else. Little or no reference was made to science, social studies, music, or other areas. The children were looking forward to acquiring these skills and meeting the expectations of teachers. Even when it came to art, I was told artists need to go to school “to learn how to draw like they’re supposed to.”

Playground, from a child’s perspective

Wardrobe considerations were also important when it came to learning. As Marci confided “I had to buy a new backpack because I’ll need homework.” A thousand miles away, Brie confirmed that homework was coming. “You learn how to do homework and how to do letters. If you’re big people, you’ve got to do homework.”

Not everyone was excited about the prospect about learning, though. When I asked Dawn how she was feeling about going to kindergarten, she lamented “Well, I don’t think it’s going to be so good because you know it’s hard to really listen and, you know, stand around and learn something. It’s not going to be so good, because I know that it’s really hard to just learn because learning is a really hard job to do.”

In addition to the hard work of learning, children created a very strong association between going to kindergarten and playing.  They perceived kindergarten would be fun, linking it closely to the opportunity to play. Casey explained, “Kindergarten is really fun. You get to do fun things. You get to play. You get to play a lot.” Heading to school in the fall with her third-grade brother, Twyla was glad that she was going to be a kindergartner. “I think it’s going to be . . . big kids learning stuff and little kids playing.”

The importance of play in the lives of kindergartners was evident throughout the interviews and in their drawings, and they fully expected it to continue when they arrive in the fall.  Preschoolers envisioned kindergarten as an environment filled with toys, many new playmates, and opportunities to play both indoors and outdoors.  Although learning would take place in kindergarten, they were anticipating ample opportunities for play. And that meant being able to make some of their own choices. Learning was imposed, play was freely chosen. Many were resigned to the realization that they’d be making a transition to a more teacher-directed agenda, but hopeful that play wouldn’t have to be sacrificed.

In the end, children perceived kindergarten to be a place where they would both learn and play. They expected to acquire new skills and information in kindergarten and, although learning may be difficult, they wanted it and expected to be successful with it. They also made it clear how important play remained in their lives, as if pleading their case for retaining play in kindergarten.

The play debates are likely to continue for years to come. No one disputes the value of play in the lives of young children; nor do we dispute the need for children to gain important intellectual skills, not always gained independently. As discussions continue about the appropriate balance of each, let’s not forget that there is an additional stakeholder group involved–those who were born in 2009 or later.

Illustrator James Estes may have captured it in a cartoon conversation between two  preschoolers building castles in the sandbox, “Next year we have to start school . . . You realize that’ll be the end of life as we know it.” If it weren’t so true, it would be funny.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow

One state’s bold step toward the future

June 6, 2014

Whether they know it or not, future generations of Vermont’s preschoolers are much better off this week. Last week Gov. Peter Shumlin signed H. 270- An Act Relating to Providing Access to Publicly Funded Prekindergarten Education  to guarantee every 3- and 4-year-old living in the Green Mountain State voluntary access to state-funded pre-K. In so doing, Vermont joins a handful of states (FL, GA, IL, NY, OK, WV) and the District of Columbia who have made similar commitments, at least on paper.

Building upon Act 62 (2007) which permitted school districts to provide publicly funded pre-K for age-eligible children to attend high quality programs either through a public school or qualified private provider, the new law requires all school districts to either provide or pay for at least 10 hours/week of prekindergarten education for 35 weeks/year for all 3-, 4- and 5-year old children who are not enrolled in kindergarten in their district in a “pre-qualified program.” For a state already ranked fourth nationally for 4-year-olds and second for 3-year-olds attended state-funded pre-K, things got even better.

There are numerous positive features contained in the law: parental selection of qualified providers; geographic portability for families; greater access through regionally coordinated, mixed-model delivery systems; financial stability through the state’s education fund; uniform data collection for planning, program improvement, and accountability, including data on child progress to “help individualize instruction and improve program practice;” and joint monitoring by the Agencies of Education and Human Services. Most important, all means all for Vermont’s young children when it comes to early learning opportunity.

There is a downside to the new law, however. It missed an opportunity to improve quality.

Although Vermont is a perennial leader for access in NIEER’s State of Preschool Annual Yearbook, it also sits among the bottom tier of states for policies assuring quality and consistency. In 2012-2013, the level of quality remained unchanged as Vermont’s two early education programs continued to meet only four of NIEER’s 10 quality standard benchmarks. Only three states (CA, FL, TX) meet fewer benchmarks.

State leaders failed to resolve the issue quality with the passage of H. 270, and, as a result, children will not necessarily benefit from direct interactions with qualified educators in all settings. It let stand an Act 62 provision permitting vaguely defined “regular, active supervision and training” from a licensed teacher for unqualified educators, and allowing a loophole requiring a program to employ a qualified teacher who may have no direct teaching responsibilities. The low dosage, of 10 hours per week, remains inadequate to improve Vermont’s static kindergarten readiness figures, particularly for those more disadvantaged children, and parents may be required to pay additional fees to private providers to receive even the minimum 10 hours. Reimbursement for schools and participating providers remains well below the kindergarten rate, which also requires only 10 hours per week to generate full funding (the majority of districts provide FDK, however). Further, there is an apparent lack of consistent or complimentary curriculum models even within a district. The act takes one important step in the right direction by requiring state agencies to develop rules (they cannot take effect until 2016 at the earliest); however, the golden opportunity to establish quality on equal footing with access was lost, at best “kicked down the road,” with the Governor’s signing.

Ascribing to the notion that one should not let perfect be the enemy of good, I still tip my hat to Vermont for its bold commitment to becoming a universal pre-K state. Once they figure out how to insert “high-quality” between the words “universal” and “pre-K” with the resources to make it happen, the state will be atop everyone’s list.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow. Squires was the early childhood programs coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education, and was involved with development and passage of Vermont’s Act 62, an Act Relating to Prekindergarten Education.


STEM Challenges

June 2, 2014

From the National Journal: ” .  . . And let’s not forget the optics. Science is still for nerds, Bill Gates’ fame aside. These are teenagers we’re talking about, after all. To the average girl on the street, meeting the Seattle Seahawks is still way cooler than meeting a superstar rocket scientist. Even if she rooted for the Broncos.”

If that girl’s in preschool, though, she doesn’t yet think that the Seattle Seahawks are cooler than Sid the Science Kid.  She also hasn’t figured out that science and math are boring, difficult, and something that “other” (supersmart, nerdy) people do.

How can we ensure that she never does learn these lessons about STEM?  One way is to give her, and her peers, teachers who understand science and math, who understand how children learn them, and who understand how to support children as science and math learners. No argument from me that we need to improve STEM teaching in high school, but it’s far too late if we wait ’til then to engage students with decent science and math teaching.  Young kids are naturally drawn to math and science.  They count blocks and stairs and say, “no fair!” when they don’t get the same number of cookies as their sister. They question where cow babies come from, why leaves change color, what happens when you flush. They deserve teachers who can support–and maybe even share–this curiosity and enthusiasm.

Yet, many of the challenges for upper grades teaching plague earlier grades, too.  Anyone who understands math understands that they could do much better financially than teaching elementary school or, even worse, preschool. Teacher training programs for early education rarely require in-depth coursework in science and math, nor do they provide teacher candidates with enough opportunities to practice teaching these in real classrooms, with real kids.

Consider this a plea for putting a fair amount of these newly committed teacher training dollars into early education. Every child, in every year of his or her life, is a STEM learner. To create the STEM-literate society we want, to build the STEM workforce we need, to get kids as excited to meet physicists as football players, requires an overhaul of STEM teaching from pre-K to graduate school. Most of those Seahawks and Red Sox played Pee Wee and Little League. Don’t budding STEM professionals–and all those kids who will never go pro–deserve similar opportunities to build their skills and a lifelong love for science and math from their earliest years?

–Kimberly Brenneman, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “Stem Challenges” from Fawn Johnson.

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