Monday, March 23, 2009

What About Play?

Museums and exhibit makers, feeling the pressure of losing school field trip revenue, are now encouraged to align their exhibits and programs with "school standards."

What are these "standards" other than an excuse for more testing? (And spending valuable classroom time with test-taking strategy sessions, setting up weekend test-prep sessions for students, and using limited school funds to purchase execrable test practice workbooks...)

This mania began after the "No Child Left Behind" laws (or as some people describe them, the “No Child Left Untested” laws) were passed, and have had the effect of causing school administrators to eliminate almost every aspect of the education day that doesn't show up on the standardized tests. Some districts have reduced or eliminated "nonessentials" such as Art, Music, Recess, and even "Play."

Enter the Alliance for Childhood, a non-profit organization that focuses on early education issues. The Alliance has just released a new report entitled Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. (The full version of the report is available on the Alliance's website.)

The report documents, in three studies commissioned by the Alliance, the radical changes in kindergarten education that have replaced play and playful learning with hours of instruction in literacy and math, and increasing amounts of standardized testing.

Researchers from U.C.L.A. and Long Island University found that, on a typical day, children in all-day kindergartens in Los Angeles and New York City spend four to six times as much time in literacy and math instruction and taking or preparing for tests (about two to three hours per day) as in free play or “choice time” (30 minutes or less). A third research team, at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, found that most of the activities available to children during choice time (a popular euphemism for playtime) are in fact teacher-directed and involve little or no free play, imagination, or creativity.

The report summarizes recent studies and reports showing long-term gains from play and focused, playful learning in early education. It also critiques kindergarten standards, scripted teaching, and standardized testing and makes recommendations for change.

David Elkind, author of The Power of Play, calls the research findings “heartbreaking.” In a foreword to the Alliance report, Elkind writes, “We have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make kindergarten a one-size-smaller first grade. Why in the world are we trying to teach the elementary curriculum at the early childhood level?”

Museums can be an antidote to this continuing mania for testing and "standards" by providing programs and exhibits that show the power of play, and playful learning.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to make this argument to administrators, so thanks to the Alliance for Childhood, here are three studies to provide ammunition for your fight.

Now get out there and provide your visitors and field trip groups with some serious play!

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