At Franklin County Schools’ Early Learning Village, kindergarten students are not only playing but using math and literacy skills, too.
In its third year of use, the approach is known as structured play because there is a deliberate purpose behind it, said Early Learning Village Principal Larry Murphy. It costs the district $40,000 to stock with equipment necessary for teaching children through play.
Children learn important lessons from playing they can’t learn from sitting at a desk doing worksheets all day, said Dr. Jennifer Grisham-Brown, FCS Board of Education chair and a professor and program chair in interdisciplinary early childhood education at the University of Kentucky.
Children learn how to socialize with others, how to control their emotions, how to focus on tasks and other lessons only play can teach, Grisham-Brown said. Children who do not learn these skills early on can have problems in school the further along they go, and even issues into adulthood, she said.
“It’s extremely important and it’s something most of the time children are not given the opportunity to engage in,” she said. “Based on child development theory, children learn by engaging in hands-on material and by having the opportunity to experience their environment.”
Students have an opportunity to not only use academic skills but also develop socially and emotionally.
Each station in the room has a specific intent. One is a light table where children play with translucent colored building blocks. Not only does this station strengthen the fine motor skills of the students, but it also teaches them some science, said Early Learning Village kindergarten teacher Shana Faesy. Light shines through the blocks, showing students how colors can mix to create new colors, Faesy said.
The structured playroom also has a dollhouse and a home dress-up station. At both stations, the children can act out different roles from their home life. Children tend to take on multiple roles while playing with the dollhouse, and that can give teachers insight into their home lives, she said.
“So, when they come into the structured playroom, they really get to explore and really be able to be a kid,” Faesy said. “They get to do all the explorative things that they sometimes don’t get the opportunity to do sitting at a desk in a classroom.”
All of the kindergarten students at the Early Learning Village have the opportunity to use the room at least once a week for 30 or 40 minutes, he said. The students utilize their math and literacy skills while also learning social and emotional skills. While playing, the students learn how to share and solve disputes in constructive manners, Murphy said.
Research into the idea of structured play has been going on for some time now, Murphy said. Research as well as conversations with Grisham-Brown are what inspired Murphy to create the playroom at the Early Learning Village, Murphy said.
“I would argue that they need even more opportunity for play than what they’re even getting at the Early Learning Village,” Grisham-Brown said.
In early-childhood education, there’s teacher-driven and child-driven instruction. With teacher-driven instruction, children would, for example, sit at desks and complete worksheets, negating any opportunities for children to interact socially and learn social and emotional skills, she said.
With child-driven instruction, kindergarten students have more control over their education and have more chances to play and explore their environment, Grisham-Brown said.
Before the No Child Left Behind Act, Murphy said, kindergarten classrooms looked very different than they do now.
“When I was in kindergarten we focused only on the social and emotional aspects of things,” Murphy said.
Kindergarten classrooms at Collins Lane Elementary have structured play stations set up throughout the rooms and have time set aside to utilize those stations, said Principal Jennifer Perkins.
“Each of the teachers in kindergarten has a structured center time in which the kids can go to different centers in the room,” she said. “There’s a kitchen center and a blocks center.”
The students have 30 minutes set aside to participate in structured play, Perkins said.
“If we don’t develop social and emotional skills, it does have a lasting impact on students,” Murphy said. “We know through different state mandates we have to focus on academics, but it’s so important to not lose sight of really nurturing the entire child.”