Despite overwhelming evidence that play is critical to human development, a recent study published by the American Educational Research Association concludes that kindergartners are spending more time testing and less time playing. And this trend was more pronounced at schools that serve predominantly low-income students.
This makes no sense. Young people need to play. The research is clear. But instead of giving them more time to play we give them more instruction. This causes long term harm. And we are doing more of this in schools with children who would benefit most from something different. For instance, one of the most remarkable findings of the landmark HighScope Perry preschool study wasn’t that preschool had long-term benefits for low-income students but that free play was more beneficial than direct instruction. See page 10.
So what’s going on? The authors speculated that No Child Left Behind forced teachers to spend more time teaching literacy and math because these subjects are specifically assessed under the law and this would leave less them for play. They were right. In 1998, before No Child Left Behind, only 31 percent of teachers believed their students should learn to read in kindergarten while in 2010, that figure jumped to 80 percent. This means that most teachers hold erroneous beliefs about childhood development thanks to the very standards designed to guide them.
We do not know enough about human development to demand our children learn certain skills by a certain age. There is no sound basis for these standards. Babies learn to talk all by themselves. And they do it with ease. They’re geniuses. Yet we spend billions every year to “teach” these same geniuses basic math when they get older. This is a huge waste of time and resources.
Education policy is in a hole. It needs to stop digging. We need more freedom and play in the classroom. Sudbury does this but that’s a given. The bigger problem, as this study shows, is that most schools are moving further away from what works. They’re digging a deeper hole. Public money needs to be devoted to doing what the research (and our guts) tell us is right. And that’s giving young people more time to play and more control over their education. We have enough resources to do this. Volusia County alone adopted a $780,611,483.00 budget for the 2015-2016 school year. It isn’t a question of money. It’s a question of will.
It is time for change. But change without substance is an empty slogan. Sudbury is an example of change that works. It has put this change into practice for nearly 50 years in schools around the world. The results are amazing.