For Little Ones, Challenging Content and Play Go Hand in Hand
As a high-achieving kindergarten teacher in New Orleans, 2015 Fishman Prize winner Erica Mariola told us she is frequently baffled by those who suggest that "challenging content” means “not appropriate for five-year-olds.” We asked her to share why.
Lately, I’ve been bothered by more than a few articles suggesting that kindergarten students miss out on opportunities for play in a rigorous academic environment. Some opponents of the Common Core think kindergarten standards are not “developmentally appropriate” and somehow compromise inquiry and play-based learning. But as a kindergarten teacher, I say this gets the relationship between play and academic rigor all wrong.
In 2014, I moved to New Orleans to join the founding staff of KIPP EAST Community Primary. Although it was my seventh year in the classroom, it was my first experience teaching five-year-olds. I chose to teach kindergarten because I believe in the mission and vision of KIPP EAST: provide a challenging college preparatory curriculum in an environment that encourages play and joy.
Five-year-olds should play and move. But that doesn’t mean my classroom isn’t challenging. My students take a daily dance and movement class, have outdoor recess, and take a 45-minute nap. They also learn how to read above-grade-level stories, write, and manipulate numbers through play, not in spite of it.
Here’s what I mean: A Common Core kindergarten standard for math is that children should be able to solve word problems and add and subtract within ten. For critics of higher standards, this might conjure an image of tiny children swallowed by gigantic desks where they sit adding and subtracting like machines. But that’s not how my students learned to subtract.
They did it by bowling. We set up ten small bowling pins in partner pairs. After rolling a tennis ball and knocking down pins, each partner pair wrote down the subtraction equation represented by the fallen bowling pins. Then they wrote a sentence about how they got that equation. It was a rigorous lesson—and it taught them how to subtract—but if you walked into my classroom, you would’ve seen kids bowling, high-fiving, and cheering.
In my classroom, my students also have a scaffolded writing block every day. This doesn’t mean my class of five-year-olds writes full sentences, or even words, just yet. The form of their writing takes the shape of crayon drawings, scribbles, lines, or invented spelling—depending on where they are in their development.
The most essential part of the block is the last 10 minutes. My students join me on the carpet to look at what they just produced, which I display on the board with the document camera. They are always excited and yell, “Read mine, Ms. Mariola! Read mine!” Together, we talk about what each writer did well and keep the discussion as student-led as possible. Then I ask what the writer could do differently to make her writing better tomorrow. In response, I might hear, “She could leave some more spaces between her words so it’s easy to see,” or “she can use an uppercase letter in the beginning of the sentence.” As a result of this feedback, my students go from squiggles to sentences over the course of a school year.
I know I’m not the only teacher who can teach students about math while they play on the carpet with their friends, or teach spelling while they doodle with crayons. In my school, I see teachers and young students every day working with challenging academic material in creative and fun ways. I also see these same students thriving as a result.
Juxtaposing play against standards—as if standards are an evil entity set on removing fun from kids’ lives—doesn’t make any sense. Standards articulate what children should be able to do at a given point in their development. The real problem is that many of us have low expectations for what young learners are capable of. Students like mine prove that even our littlest learners can find joy in learning, not in spite of it. All we have to do is give them a chance.
Read more about Erica’s approach to early childhood instruction in her Fishman Prize essay, “My 'Friends' are Teachers Too.”