Playing for schools we want

April 25, 2013

Kirstin Roberts, an early childhood teacher and parent of a Chicago Public Schools kindergartener-to-be, describes a different kind of schools demonstration.

ON APRIL 17, parents, children and early childhood educators arrived at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters bright and early.

Instead of the normal macabre theater on display at 125 S. Clark St. for Board of Education meetings--in which people who attend or work at public schools are forced to line up for hours in order to testify for two minutes to an uninterested and unelected board, begging for support for their schools that never materializes--we sat down.

We spread blankets in the lobby and took out our puppets and blocks. We blew bubbles and made works of art. We dressed up in fairy wings and superhero costumes. We danced and played chess. We sang songs, accompanied by cello and guitar. We held signs proclaiming, "Play is a child's right!" and "We're more than a score!"

For the first time among my experiences at CPS headquarters, children felt welcomed, and adults were laughing and smiling. We were "playing in": Kind of like a sit-in, but with play-dough. And we weren't going to move until our children's laughter could be heard ringing through the halls.

A protester spreads mayhem inside Chicago Public Schools headquarters
A protester spreads mayhem inside Chicago Public Schools headquarters (Sarah-ji)

LET ME explain how this came about. On March 8, I posted this on my Facebook page:

I have simply had enough of the inappropriate academic push down into early childhood education...Are you with me? Then help me organize a PLAY-IN! We'll go down to the Board of Education with our blocks, our play-dough, our finger-paints and our children, and we will assert the RIGHT of every young child to learn through play. No more standardized test drills, no more worksheets, no more expository essays in kindergarten. Please get in touch with me if you want to help and feel free to share.

This Facebook status struck a nerve with several of my coworkers and friends with children in the public schools, and I received many e-mails and messages of support. As a member of the Chicago organization More Than A Score, which is battling to save our schools from the nightmare of high-stakes standardized testing, I was already part of a network of dedicated parents and fellow Chicago Teachers Union members who were ready to help organize.

Earlier that week, I toured my neighborhood school's kindergarten classrooms in preparation for registering my 5-year-old son for his first day of elementary school this coming fall.

The classrooms were overcrowded with small tables and chairs--enough for the 30 or so students they're typically cramming into CPS kindergarten classrooms these days, although many, many kindergartens have far more. Brightly colored plastic tubs full of books lined the shelves. Walls were covered with teacher-made posters about colors, shapes, classroom rules.

All this was pretty typical, and as an early childhood teacher myself, it looked pretty familiar. But something was amiss. Or I should say: Something was missing.

I scanned the rooms for any sign of building blocks. None. I looked around for signs of dramatic play areas or props, like puppets. Nope. Sand or water table? No. Hands-on science area, with opportunities for children to touch, examine, experiment? Uh-uh. Art materials or any sign that children were being encouraged to represent their ideas in creative or meaningful ways? Don't even ask.

What passed for creativity were displays of Xeroxed snowmen, colored in crayon, each indistinguishable from the last, and each apparently only an excuse to practice "-ow" words, as their kindergarten scrawl clued me in on closer examination. No art for art's sake here.

I was informed by my tour guide that recess happened for 20 minutes a day, weather permitting, and this is better than many schools get, since this school has a good playground, with newer equipment and space to run. Many schools, particularly in low-income areas, don't even have that.

I left feeling depressed, wondering how my 5-year-old son would possibly adapt to a 7-hour school day that allowed a measly 20 minutes of play. I imagined picking him up after school and coming home to face the large amounts of worksheet homework CPS kindergarten teachers are now assigning in order to ensure their students are capable of passing 14 standardized tests administered over the course of the year. It seemed impossibly cruel.

I came home and took a look on Facebook. I read about a colleague in New York City, a kindergarten teacher, who had been written up by administration. What was the bad practice she was being punished for? During a classroom observation, an administrator asked one of her students what they were doing during center time, and the child responded, "Playing."

THE LAST seven years of teaching preschool has been a constant battle to defend what should be--and used to be--a given in the world of early childhood: Young children learn most naturally and most deeply through well-supported play. Play is how young children explore their world, build relationships, experiment with their environment, test theories and construct knowledge. In short, play is how young children learn and grow.

It is both a joyful and a serious endeavor, as anyone who has spent any amount of time watching young children build with blocks, play house or attack the playground can attest to.

Yet for all the power of well-supported play to enrich children's spirits as well as their intellects, play in our early childhood classrooms is under threat in elementary schools around the country. The dramatic increase in testing of the very young over the last decade, in response to the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top federal education mandates, has pushed out developmentally appropriate curriculum, including play based learning in early childhood classrooms. The adoption of the hugely profitable Common Core Curriculum has exacerbated this trend.

Teachers who value and use a play-based curriculum are forced to come up with creative ways to "hide" children's play from know-nothing administrators, who accuse us of promoting play because it's "easy"--which shows how very little they know--or who belittle our classrooms for their lack of rigor and discipline.

Worse is the pressure in the poorest neighborhood schools, where test scores--seen as the sole measure of the worth of our schools--are low. Teachers in these schools are told that play is a luxury that underprivileged kids cannot afford. In order to make up the achievement gap, time for play and experiential learning has got to go. "Drill and kill" of narrow academic skills isolated from context and meaning, scripted instruction and test preparation have replaced the kind of rich educational experiences that support the intellectual and emotional capabilities of all young children.

According to play-in participant and Concordia University Associate Professor Isabel Nunez:

One of the most destructive consequences of having non-educators running our districts and schools is that we have forgotten the fundamental principles of human development. Any developmental psychologist will tell you that young children learn through play. There is no debate on this within the discipline. Maria Montessori, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel were scientists. Their vision for education is based on research, not a touchy-feely desire to let the children play just because they enjoy it. A play-based curriculum for early childhood classrooms is developmentally appropriate, because play is the way children learn.

As parents and teachers of young children, we know the harmful results of high-stakes testing on schools and school systems. We have marched and protested as many of our schools in the poorest areas of the city are shuttered, punished for not winning in a game rigged from the start. We also know the harmful impact of high-stakes testing on individual children; children that we love who are being labeled failures at the age of 5 years old.

We're tired of our children being used and abused by corporations out to make money off their tests and their curricula matched to the tests. The politicians, recipients of financial kickbacks in the form of campaign contributions from these same corporations, are more than happy to throw our children's schools into disarray and misery, as their children's schools continue to thrive with multiple opportunities for creativity, play and experiential learning.

We played in at CPS to demonstrate our vision of appropriate early childhood education and to demand that our schools start listening to the experts and return play to our classrooms, end standardized testing for our youngest learners, and allow the joy of teaching and learning back into our schools.

Eventually the police were called by CPS security. The six officers deployed stood nearby, powerless to stop 3 year olds from blowing bubbles and giggling. After an hour and a half, and snack time, we packed up and went home for our naps.

We're already discussing where we're going to play next. Maybe Rahm's office?

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