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PBEL - Play Based Experiential Learning

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Incorporating Play Based Experiential Learning into Professional development for early education teachers.

The last two decades have seen the introduction of the “Standards & Accountability Movement,” with an increased focus on setting high standards for children’s academic achievement through the alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessment. This creates serious problems for educators in universities and community colleges who are preparing teachers for preK and kindergarten classrooms. They are under pressure to teach about standards and instructional education, and there are fewer and fewer courses offered on child development and the benefits of play-based experiential learning. Early childhood teachers find themselves having to teach from highly structured, purchased curricula and even tightly scripted programs, leading many potentially gifted teachers to leave the profession. Many experienced teachers also tell us they are leaving the work for they can no longer bear to teach children ways they deem inappropriate ways.

While changes in expectations in preK and kindergarten education can be traced back over several decades, Common Core State Standards, introduced in 2009, are the most recent and most widely adopted of the recent standards. They were designed to provide “a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics.” As of this writing 42 states have elected to adopt and implement the standards, with Alaska, Indiana Oklahoma, Minnesota (adopted the ELA standards), Nebraska, Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia, choosing to adopt their own standards. In addition to the Common Core Standards states and/or school districts can mandate their own region-specific standards.

The introduction of Common Core and other standards has been met with mixed reactions by many in the early childhood field because they place an increased emphasis on academic instruction when young children benefit most from the opportunity to learn through hands-on experiences and play. To that end this toolkit is aimed at supporting educators in navigating the murky waters that exist between adhering to best practices in Play Based Experiential Learning and meeting established standards.

The Alliance itself took a strong stand against including kindergarten and the lower grades in Common Core, feeling that young learners needed goals better aligned with developmental expectations. A position statement to that effect was signed by hundreds of educators. Nonetheless the standards begin with 12th grade expectations and work their way down to kindergarten with little recognition that young children learn quite differently than older children. The kindergarten standards, in particular, deviate considerably from age-appropriate expectations. A key literacy standard, for example, is that by the end of kindergarten children should read emerging literature (basic books) with “purpose and understanding.” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.K.4:) Yet, as the Alliance points out in a joint report with Defending the Early Years, no evidence can be found here or abroad that if children are taught to read in kindergarten they will be more successful readers by third or fourth grade than are children who begin learning to read in first grade.

There are many math standards, too, that are considered developmentally inappropriate. They are described in a paper by Constance Kamii, a well known expert on early childhood math education. Her paper was written for the advocacy group, Defending the Early Years, and contains much research detailing the inappropriateness of many of the Common Core’s math standards in kindergarten and the early years. 

Gradually policy makers are awakening to the inappropriateness of the Common Core standards for younger children. In December 2015 the New York Governor’s Task Force on Common Core Standards recommended that the kindergarten and early grade standards be modified so that they are “age appropriate.”

The report explains its concerns in this way: “Parents and teachers of younger students in grades K-2 have reported that the Standards are too challenging for young learners, and require concrete thinking and skills for which they may not yet be ready. Common complaints relate to the Standards being age- or developmentally inappropriate for young learners and overly inflexible in their expectations.” 

Impact on PreK

There have been several unintended consequences that have emerged in the wake of the increased focus on raising academic achievement standards. While Common Core standards focus on K- 12, their adoption has had a trickledown effect to preK and early childhood programs. In an attempt to prepare children for the rigorous nature of the standards they will encounter upon entering kindergarten, there is increasing pressure for more academic instruction in preK and less focus on play based learning.

Prior to Common Core, preK and kindergarten classrooms focused their achievement efforts on state standards. As of this writing, many states are designing preK standards to align with the Common Core Kindergarten standards. While new preK standards may ensure greater levels of readiness as children enter kindergarten, they will probably do so by requiring more time be spent on instructional learning and less on hands-on experiences and play. It will be a challenge to establish strong preschools and kindergartens that utilize Play Based Experiential Learning. Teachers will need to be well educated in this approach and school administrators will need to see how effective it can be, cognitively and socially-emotionally.

One outcome related to current practices is a high rate of expulsion of children from preK classrooms. An initial study by Walter Gilliam of Yale showed that preschool expulsion rates were three times higher than K-12 rates. Of preK children who were expelled, 4.5 times more boys than girls were expelled. Boys of color were especially susceptible to preK expulsion. [link or footnore. I can look this up if we keep it in] While the causes of the high expulsion rates have not been well studied, there is a strong assumption among early childhood educators and psychologists that children are being asked to sit still and focus on instructional lessons for far longer than they are able. Boys, in particular, find it frustrating to sit still for so long and are apt to act out when they are frustrated.

The role of teachers

In addition to the impact that standards are having on children , they are also affecting the lives of preK and kindergarten educators who are faced with the difficult task of determining how to achieve each of the standards within the course of a school year. This has led many educators to feel overwhelmed by the requirements.

As we consider ways in which we can provide rich play learning experiences, it is useful to keep in mind that standards as a whole should be viewed as “What” goals should be achieved each year – unrealistic as the goals may be – but not “How” educators should support children in achieving the goals. For instance standards such as kindergarteners should be able to, “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding,” provide educators with a goal to work towards yet provide little in the way of how group reading activities should be approached.

To that end our understanding of the benefits of play for young children lead us to believe that well designed Play Based Experiential Learning opportunities can provide an effective and appropriate pathway to achieving standards. This is supported by teachers’ reports from the field. It is worth mentioning that standards need not be viewed as areas to tackle one at time. Rather, through Play Based Experiential Learning, a single activity may integrate/infuse multiple standards, allowing an opportunity to reinforce skills over multiple lessons. When teacher-led activities are filled with life they tend to integrate many of the standards. This is even truer when teacher-led activities are combined with child-initiated play.

Reflections from the Field

Art as part of a play based learning environment is important. It seems to be a favorite activity of young children. Perhaps it is because it allows them to express themselves freely without any restrictions or rules. Play in art can include performing arts as well as many other art forms such as collages, painting, sculpting and molding using play dough. Recently I invited the Special Education, Severely Handicapped(SH) class to join our class twice a week for art and other activities which always included some form of sensory art using play dough, watercolor, tempura and finger paint. The set-up is simple; we prep the setting up centers with art materials on designated tables, then we let the children choose. All activities are well supervised. The Sp. Ed. teacher, Aides and I work together to bring new ideas to the table and plan activities which are developmentally appropriate for both groups of students. ... Read More