Higher expectations have taken the joy out of learning in early grades, argues Vikki Ortiz Healy, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Equating rigor with doing more is “like trying to teach a baby to walk before it can roll over.”
It is difficult for educators to strike a balance between play and learning “in an era of high-stakes testing and educational mandates,” says Nancy Latham, an Illinois State University professor.
However, more challenging classroom standards do not have to come at the expense of physical activity or hands-on learning. In fact, many teachers have found innovative approaches to channel children’s energy to help them meet higher learning goals.
Elizabeth Little, for example, has her students create a banana keyboard as a way to help them understand math concepts. Michael Bonner, a North Carolina teacher, also took a unique approach to learning: he had his students create a music video.
Early-grade skills outlined by states’ standards, like knowing the alphabet or counting to 100, “can and should be accomplished through joyful, playful rhymes, songs and physical games,” David Liben, a former principal, wrote in the New York Times.
It would be a shame, Liben adds, to discount the value of high, comparable education standards because of a misinterpretation of their compatibility with play.
Educators can use playtime to help reinforce reading and math concepts, explains Eric Slifstein, a physical education teacher in New York. “For many students who struggle with concepts on paper, applying them to physical activity often helps make it ‘click.’”
In California, schools have begun hiring more P.E. teachers as they implement higher standards to help integrate play with other subjects, Ed Source reported last spring. “This is a win-win,” said Dennis Kurtz, an assistant district superintendent. “The kids are getting physical instruction from people who are experts, and the teachers are collaborating.”
Experts generally consider the notion that educators must decide between classroom learning and play a false narrative. Instead, teachers have an opportunity to reinforce lesson plans through physical activity and innovative, hands-on approaches, especially in kindergarten through the early grades.
Parents and teachers should look for opportunities to couple higher standards with children’s natural energy. Play and classroom learning is not an either-or tradeoff.