Work Hard, Play Hard: What’s Really More Important in a Kindergarten Classroom?

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Danielle Soviero

Ed 300 Research Essay

Work Hard, Play Hard: What’s Really More Important in a Kindergarten Classroom?


My first day of kindergarten is a memory that vividly sticks out in my mind. I can remember crying as I was led away from my parents and into the vibrant classroom full of colors, toys, and other students. The world of schooling was still foreign to me at that point, and kindergarten was my first time being away from my sheltered home, and having the opportunity to socialize with other children my age. Beginning an education is a unique experience and is different for children of all grade levels, but kindergarten specifically takes the meaning of learning to a different height fit for children in the 5-6 year age range. The idea behind kindergarten was created in Germany in the early 1800’s, but didn’t make the move over the the United States until nearly fifty years later. Kindergarten has been implemented in the US system since the late 1800’s, but the movement was really spearheaded by the time the 1900’s came around. Early activists felt that they were creating something unique to children’s education with the concept of kindergarten. In most kindergarten classrooms across the nation, it is the year for children to begin exploring the creative side of their minds through hands on activities. Why did the original early childhood advocates for kindergarten emphasize “play” as an essential component to the curriculum? And why has this notion gradually declined in classrooms over recent decades?


Early German and US kindergarten advocates saw themselves as creating a different approach to learning than traditional common school classrooms at that time. Activists such as Friedrich Froebel and Elizabeth Peabody mainly focused their curriculum on individual child development, and devoted this year in a child’s life as the stepping stone for learning before entering the common school years. Both Froebel and Peabody placed a huge weight on the important use of creativity and imagination in the kindergarten classroom. Peabody and Froebel insisted that children of the kindergarten age range were not only fit for learning, but the learning that would occur within the walls of the kindergarten environment would push them further to determine their morality and success in future academic endeavors. Friedrich Froebel was the original pioneer who spearheaded the idea of Kindergarten, when he created the first classroom in Germany. The notion behind his curriculum of children learning through play has been around ever since. “Kinder” meaning children, and “garten” meaning garden, were two words that came together to define the meaning of kindergarten. It was designed as a place where children could flourish with the help of some TLC, like flowers in a garden. “How does a gardener treat his plants? He studies their individual natures, and puts them into such circumstances of soil and atmosphere as enable them to grow, flower, and bring forth fruit.” (Mann 10) Kindergarten was that atmosphere, and it’s teachers were the gardeners who would allow their children to grow. Froebel utilized techniques such as the concept of “gifts” and “occupations” as a parallels to toys and activities for children to engage in during classroom time. Through playtime with different toys, children are able to gain “sensory experiences” (Saracho 60)  that are central to their growth and development as students.  In 1860, Elizabeth Peabody opened the very first English speaking kindergarten in Boston, and carried along with it the very same values that Froebel had implemented into the original concept.  This concept was different from traditional common school classrooms, grades first through eighth, because unlike primary level curricula, kindergarten did not force the retention of information at such a tender age, but instead graciously prepared them for the road ahead.


Moving forward to the 1990s, there are many factors that have diminished the emphasis on play in kindergarten classrooms. Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation on America’s failing education system. His speech was titled the “Nation at Risk Report,” and indeed went on to list the many ways that America was at risk for not just a failing educational system, but a failing country as a whole. According to the report, schools were getting worse. Not only were students illiterate with failing test scores, but on top of that the teachers were not qualified enough to be educating the students of our nation. Regan said, “Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.” (A Nation At Risk) This report was a major turning point in the turnaround of the American school system as we know it, and acted as a major reform in the way we think about schools today. Following this report, there was an abundance of pressure put on schools to implement more vigorous work in classrooms, thus creating more aggressive, scholarly learners. The report suggested that curricula become more rigorous, which would in turn challenge students to a greater degree and assume they would become smarter beings. With this added pressure came the beginning of the decline of play in the kindergarten curriculum, specifically. In order to create “smarter” students, play was not the answer. Instead early childhood classrooms were feeling the pressure to, in a sense, “prove” to the nation that kindergarten students could read and write.


In more recent years, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, put further pressure on schools to ensure students were doing well. After the growing concern that the education system was headed down the drain, the law, “significantly increased the federal role in holding schools responsible for the academic progress of all students.” (Edweek, Klein.) Holding schools accountable for student success places an immense amount of pressure on educators to make sure they are representing the school well. Moreover, “under the NCLB law, states must test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.” (Edweek, Klein.) This means, that in order for students in grade 3 to perform well on these state literacy and math tests, students must be prepared for these tests prior to entering third grade, leaving only grades K-2 to prepare. With not much time to cultivate student success, teachers have had to start implementing more extensive curricula in the early childhood years.


With that being said, the act of playing is still crucial to the exploration of children’s creative minds, and is in fact one of the strongest facets of learning that there is for young children to begin developmental skills. Playing teaches kids social skills such as learning to share and interact with other children, as well as independent cognitive abilities. I argue that the diminishment of play time in kindergarten classrooms is destructive to the moral and academic growth of children. Playing and learning are not two different categories of education, but instead go hand in hand with one another in the kindergarten setting. Thus, play should remain a key ingredient in kindergarten classrooms, as opposed to the current shift of focus on work as an independent component, separate from play. When children play, their ideas come from within their own minds, and the result of that creative process is independant learning. Initiating play with other peers also initiates self taught lessons, and personal growth. In the report, “Crisis In Kindergarten,” written by Edward Miller and Joan Almon for the Alliance for Childhood, the authors suggest a piece of evidence that is crucial to my argument stating, “Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than non-players, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking.” (Miller, Almon 2) The dynamic of play not only aids in socialization, but also strengthens communication and language skills, tightens imaginative abilities, helps control temperamental issues, and opens the door for critical thinking in children.


With these times rapidly changing, the kindergarten curriculum is slowly but surely loosing the important focus on play. Classrooms are taking the idea of play away and instead introducing literacy and mathematics skills early on in children’s educational careers. The reason being, is due to the pressure for kids to do well early on, and in order for that to happen, schools need to show their rigor from classrooms of younger ages. However, the idea that implementing core curricula early on will better enhance children’s learning in later years is simply put, wrong. Children need time to be kids, and explore their imaginative sides. Should play be done away with altogether in kindergarten classrooms, students will become academically worn out before elementary school even begins. In Jen Scott Curwood’s, “What Happened To Kindergarten?” PhD and author, David Elkind suggests that, “Play facilitates the growth of children’s reasoning abilities…Children’s questions are a form of mastery play… in asking questions, children are creating their own learning experiences.” (Curwood 30.) The act of play is vital to the development and answering of questions for children, a strategy that is crucial for success later on in life. Curwood also points out that playing fosters some key components to strengthening children’s academic abilities. First and foremost, the notion of socialization through active learning with peers is an important factor for development. Secondly, play as a tool for “reasoning,” will overtime help children learn more about sorting out problems. Lastly, the idea that with play comes imagination and with imagination comes innovative skills. Each of these key factors add to the reasoning why playtime is vital to student growth in kindergarten settings.  


The transformation of learning in kindergarten classrooms today is alarming, and guiding our nation’s children down the path for no natural development, nor creative energy. The foundation of the kindergarten concept was not built upon academics alone, but on the notion of hands on learning through play. Kindergarten has been around for centuries, and worked well as it was meant to be when it was created and carried over to the US. Should America’s schools continue to dwell on what looks right for economic success, as opposed to what is right for the morality of children, it is poignant to suggest that kindergarten classrooms might be done away with altogether- which would be a major loss for the education of America’s children.



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Armytage, W. H. G. 1952. Friedrich froebel: A centennial appreciation. History of Education Journal 3 (4): 107-13.

Bassok D., & Rorem A. (2014) Is Kindergarten the new first grade? The changing nature of Kindergarten in the age of accountability. EdPolicyWorks Working Paper Series, No. 20. Retrieved from:

Breen, Audrey. U.V.A researchers find that kindergaren is the new first grade. in UVA Today [database online]. Online, [cited January 29 2014]. Available from (accessed May 4 2016).

Curwood, Jen Scott. 2007. What happened to kindergarten? 117 (1049-5851) (32 August): p28-30.

Gardner, David P. & Others. 1983. A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. an open letter to the american people. A report to the nation and the secretary of education. Washington, DC: Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, ED226006.

Klein, Alyson. No child left behind: An overview. in Education Week [database online]. Online, [cited April 10 2015]. Available from (accessed May 5, 2016).

Mann, Mary Tyler Peabody, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Moral Culture of Infancy, and Kindergarten Guide…: By Mrs. Horace Mann and Elizabeth P. Peabody. JW Schemerhorn & Company, 1870.

Miller, Edward & Almon, Joan. Crisis in the kindergarten: Why children need to play. in Alliance for Childhood [database online]. College Park, MD, [cited March 2009]. Available from

Muelle, Christina More. 2013. The history of kindergarten: From germany to the united states. Florida International University, .

Reagan, Ronald. 1983. Archived: A nation at risk. National Commission on Excellence in Education, .

Saracho, Olivia N., and Bernard Spodek. “CHILDREN’S PLAY AND EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: INSIGHTS FROM HISTORY AND THEORY.” The Journal of Education 177, no. 3 (1995): 129–48.

One thought on “Work Hard, Play Hard: What’s Really More Important in a Kindergarten Classroom?”

  1. Danielle, this essay raises an two interesting questions about why the original kindergarten advocates emphasized “play” and why this notion has declined in recent years. But a stronger essay would separate out your arguments versus your supporting evidence, as both appear to be mixed together in paragraphs two and three. For your next writing assignment, imagine creating a thesis paragraph with the big idea, followed by several body paragraphs of background (the Froebel and Peabody story), and persuasive evidence (about what caused this recent change) to convince readers to accept your interpretation. Overall, while this essay contained strong advocacy in favor of more play in kindergarten, it would have been more persuasive to show us clear evidence about how “academic work” has pushed the original notion of “kindergarten play” to the sidelines.

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