Many years ago, the teachers of Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois, tried an experiment during the dregs of winter when the children were cooped up in the gym day after day. They removed all of the gym equipment and replaced it with large boxes, fabric, duct tape, and markers. And the kids went to town building their own houses, trains, rockets, and whatever else popped into their heads.
Recently, Cherry Preschool, accredited by The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), was one of ten U.S. early childhood programs awarded a grant for an “Imagination Playground,” thanks to collaboration between NAEYC and KaBOOM! The playground is similar in concept to the boxes but much more durable and useable year-round. The grant, which allowed Cherry Preschool to install the Imagination Playground, is part of Let’s Play, a community partnership led by Dr Pepper Snapple to get kids and families active nationwide. As a result of expanded Let’s Play grants and projects with KaBOOM!, more than 1 million kids will benefit from new or improved playgrounds around the nation between 2014 and 2016.
The foam blue blocks are designed to prompt creativity and sensory exploration by allowing children to manipulate the environment. They transform the gym into a play space that encourages learning, social development, movement, and fun. Now the open-ended, play-based learning Cherry Preschool advocates in its classrooms is also part of gym play.
KaBOOM! is a national non-profit dedicated to saving play, and play is certainly in danger of becoming extinct in our schools. Even preschool programs are feeling the pressure to prepare kids for academic kindergartens. For this reason, it is particularly important for programs like Cherry Preschool to provide a model for developmentally appropriate, play-based early childhood education.
As our country has increasingly embraced the academic orientation of the educational reform movement, many children no longer have the opportunity for imaginative play, particularly after they enter kindergarten. They therefore lack the foundational skills that are linked to play: memory, emotional self-regulation, oral language and literacy, perspective-taking, and social competence. It is these so-called “soft skills” that enable children to succeed in elementary school and beyond.
The mission of Imagination Playground is to provide reasonably priced materials to facilitate creative free play that enables children to “grow up happy and healthy.” This mission is a perfect fit for developmentally appropriate education that provides an environment in which children’s learning can be self-directed, hands-on, fun, and meaningful to their stage of development.
Sadly, when children move from play-based early childhood programs to kindergarten, there is often a drastic change in how children are taught. Educational standards and testing have now become the sole drivers of the curriculum in many kindergartens. To make matters worse, the classroom practices and teaching strategies used to implement these standards in a developmentally appropriate manner are often forgotten.
Parents of children entering kindergarten are worried, and rightfully so. I will be part of a conversation on starting kindergarten on Wednesday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Creative Coworking, 922 Davis in Evanston. I have promised to talk about Everything You Wanted to Know About Kindergarten (but were afraid to ask). Knowing what to expect in kindergarten and how to advocate for a child given new and often inappropriate expectations is very important.
One thing that must be addressed is the radical change in teaching methods that takes place between early childhood and kindergarten. The kids have not changed that much over that short time. They are still five-years-old and they still learn best through play. As the late Fred Rogers said,
“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit…It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
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