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.



Ailwood, Jo. “Governing Early Childhood Education through Play.” Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 4, no. 3 (September 1, 2003): 286–99. doi:10.2304/ciec.2003.4.3.5.

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.

Waiting for Superman

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The documentary, Waiting for Superman, follows the lives of five young children who are given a chance to escape their failing public schools and try for an educational future. They are placed into the schooling lottery to attend charter schools in their neighborhoods (or in some cases, a few towns away.) The documentary shines a light on the failure of public schools, and implies that charter schools are the only possibility for children who want a quality education. One thing I noticed about this film is that it blames a lot of the issues regarding schooling on teachers, when in fact many problems are out of their control.

One part of this documentary that stood out to me most was the “Dance of the Lemons.” (43:30) I had never heard of this term before and when I learned what it meant, I was unsure and skeptical of the whole process. Basically, every school has a handful of “bad teachers” who principals want to get rid of, but according to the teachers union, these teachers cannot merely be fired. Schools and headmasters get together and in essence swap out their bad teachers and move them around to other schools in hopes that they wind up with a better “bad” teacher than before.  As the movie puts it, they want to “take their lemons and make lemonade.”44:32) The film makers are trying to convey through this, that the goal of the schools is to keep education happening, keep children learning, keep teachers teaching, and to make money.

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(Dance of the Lemons)

This is an important issue because schools are recycling bad teachers, and placing them in classrooms where children will continue learning from said bad teachers. This process hurts children, especially those in already failing schools, with already poor grades. The documentary featured many statistics about schools, and one that shocked me was that in Washington DC, our nations capital, only 12% of either graders are proficient in reading. It is a startling static to even believe to be true. How can it be that children who are soon entering high school are not educated well enough to read at their own grade level? Perhaps it goes back to the dance of the lemons, and the idea of implementing poor teachers into classrooms simply because the union says that must be done.

We hear a lot about these “bad” teachers in this film, and see the blame for the failing public schools fall on their shoulders. However, we never actually hear from these teachers on why the schools they are at are failing. Hearing their point of views could’ve been helpful in hearing the other side of the problem. I also noticed that they failed to talk about the many good teachers that enlighten children across the nation daily. These individuals also went unnoticed here, and their voices went unheard. This is one of the many “holes” I noticed in the documentary.


Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.


Most Likely To Succeed

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“If we teach today’s students, as we taught yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.” – John Dewey

On April 6th, the Capital Community College in Downtown Hartford hosted a small screening of the educational documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed.” This documentary, directed by Greg Whiteley and produced by Ted Dintersmith, debuted at the Sundance film festival last year, and has since gone on to be shown in over 2,000 schools across the country. The film offered an interesting perspective on the current traditional schooling system and it’s desire for change.

124 years ago the Committee of Ten, a group of educators, came up with a standard set of subjects they felt every student should know. This system of education began in 1892, and still today in 2016, it has not changed. There is something alarming about this notion- that students today are still learning what was put into place over a century ago, despite the drastically changing times. The problem with the traditional method of teaching is that every student learns differently. Kids who are excited about a certain topic will learn it better.

This is where Larry Rosenstock came in. He had a vision of what schooling should become, and developed a school unlike any other- called High Tech High. Located in San Diego, this school centralizes around the idea of project based learning. This means there are no written exams, no class periods or subjects, no bells, and no textbooks. Instead, teachers are on a one year contract and can simply teach whatever they want, whenever they want too. In place of a final exam that normally forces students to memorize and cram information onto paper, at this school there is an end of year exhibition where parents, friends, and teachers alike come to publicly view the student work in an open forum.

One of the biggest misconceptions of the traditional model of school is that the more information one can gain, the more knowledge he or she will have. However, this is wrong. According to a supporter of High Tech High, “Content is ubiquitous, it’s free.” We can merely Google things nowadays, we don’t need to learn to memorize unnecessary things. High Tech High instead focuses on implementing what they call “Soft Skills.” These non cognitive traits include critical thinking, asking questions, collaborating with a team, time management, and work ethic. The traditional school curriculum we have now doesn’t actually teach children to learn, it just teaches them to memorize. In a study done at the Lawrenceville School, a class of students were asked to re-take their Science final 3 months after it was over. After doing so, their grade average dropped from a B+ to an F, showing that there in fact was no retention of the material because all that mattered to them at the time was the letter on their report card.

Parents of students at this “new” type of school have expressed their concern for straying from the traditional curriculum. They fear that the lack of structure will hinder their children’s preparedness for standardized tests such as the SAT/ACT and hurt their chances of attending good colleges and universities. As producer Ted Dintersmith said, “We’re a nation obsessed with numbers.” All anyone cares about anymore are quiz grades, report cards, and SAT scores, when in reality that doesn’t guarantee anything in life. Students need to follow this new type of education that teaches them about “work and citizenship readiness.” The things that will matter in the so called real world. High Tech High and the new method teach kids to learn through doing. Students work with a sense of purpose here.

The goal of this riveting documentary is to show that education is not something that can be standardized for everyone because at the end of the day, this ignores the fact that education is about people, and no two learn the same.

After the film was over, there was a Q&A session with a panel of three poignant individuals: Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools- Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, Producer of the film- Ted Dintersmith, and Executive Director of the CT Association of Public School Superintendents- Dr. Joseph Cirasuolo. Superintendent Narvaez was asked what innovations will be implemented here in Hartford schools, to which she responded that there are currently three High school centers of innovation where kids can do real, meaningful, hands on work. The first school is project based, the second is mastery based, and the third is blended learning. Furthermore, the Montessori schools all focus on independent learning as well, where kids get to chose what they want to work on. One challenges she faced in trying to create innovations in these existing schools was learning to change as a leader and educator. Instead of feeling that there was no backbone to the curriculum, she learned simply to place the foundation down for student success and stabilize the educational system in order to help cultivate student innovation in Hartford schools.

To learn more about the documentary, and the Most Likely to Succeed campaign initiatives, check out: