EVERETT, Wash. — On a sunny winter morning in Sara Stevens’ kindergarten classroom at Pathfinder Kindergarten Center, 5- and 6-year olds spread out across the classroom learning about colors, shapes, engineering and design.
Not a pencil or worksheet was in sight, however. These kids were playing.
Standing in front of a child-sized kitchen in the corner of the classroom, Jamila dropped a plastic tomato, a hot dog, a banana and a fish into a small metal pot.
“The cake’s ready!” she proclaimed to her friends.
A few feet away, her classmate, Ivan, was sprawled on the ground surrounded by blocks and small toy cars.
“This is a house with an invisible force field,” he proclaimed, carefully adding a block to the structure. “I didn’t build the force field,” he clarified. “I imagined it.”
Originally intended to ease overcrowding in local schools, the Pathfinder Kindergarten Center, located about 25 miles north of Seattle in the Mukilteo School District, is a haven for its 545 kindergarteners. The $26-million school opened in 2017 with a central goal: to make kindergarten here more playful and joyful. Classrooms mirror high-quality preschools, with artwork papering the walls, children playing gleefully on colorful carpets, and classroom shelves stocked with bins of toys. Heated floors invite the children to play and rest on the ground and multiple play areas both inside and outside the school offer kids opportunities to learn and burn off energy.
It may seem frivolous to spend so much money on a school dedicated to a grade level that students aren’t even required to attend in most states, but research shows kindergarten can be one of the most important years in a child’s educational career. Positive experiences in kindergarten can improve non-cognitive skills and early test scores, and even increase the likelihood that children will attend college and ultimately make more money as adults.
At last count, 14 states and the District of Columbia required districts to offer full-day kindergarten, up from 10 states in 2008. As kindergarten has become more widely available in the last several decades, it’s also become more academic. In some districts, full-day kindergarten schedules are packed with back-to-back academic activities and lessons.
While recent research shows kids can, for the most part, handle more rigorous content in early years, educators and experts are worried that schools have been getting it wrong. Experts say children shouldn’t be sitting at desks, completing worksheets or listening to teachers talk for the majority of the time. An older, more extensive body of research suggests children should be playing both within lessons and between lessons, because that’s the best way for a 5-year-old to grasp difficult concepts, whether it’s working with a classmate or counting to 100.
Now, several states, including Washington, are rethinking the kindergarten curriculum and encouraging districts to revive time for block-building, coloring and imagining invisible force fields.
“Play is not divorced of learning,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an author, professor of psychology at Temple University, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has studied child development and the role of play in learning for years. “It is the natural way in which we learn.”
Play is what Friedrich Froebel imagined kindergarten would include when he founded the first kindergarten in Germany in 1837. The kindergarten day started with songs and then transitioned to playtime and included nature study, stories and dramatic play. For more than 100 years, that’s what kindergarten was known for.
The first kindergartens in America were play-based and grounded in Froebel’s vision; they were meant to build cognitive and social-emotional skills. By the 1960’s, subjects like reading, writing, math and science were informally included in the kindergarten day, which typically lasted about two-and-a-half hours. But by the 1980’s, after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education which described America’s education system as largely failing and in need of dire reform, many parents called for public kindergarten and a more standard, formal curriculum.
States and districts responded. From 1998 to 2010, the time spent on nonacademic subjects in kindergarten, including free play, decreased in favor of more time on academic subjects, such as conventional spelling and writing simple equations, a 2016 study found. During the same time, the percentage of classrooms with a dramatic play area dropped from nearly 90 percent to 58 percent.
Opportunities for free play also dropped: The study found the number of classrooms that provided at least one hour per day of child-selected activities decreased by 14 percent and the number of classrooms spending more than three hours daily on whole-class activities more than doubled. More kindergarten teachers also reported regularly teaching topics that used to be covered in later grades, like conventional spelling, writing equations, and composing and writing stories, than they did in 1998.
More recently, widespread changes in academic standards, like the adoption of the Common Core standards and concern over low reading scores, further increased the rigor of kindergarten to the point that it has been referred to as “the new first grade.” Kindergarteners now are expected to count to 100 by ones and tens, for example. Previously some states only required kindergarteners to count to 20 or 30. In California, concepts like the counting system are now taught in kindergarten instead of first grade. In Mississippi, concepts like plural nouns and three-dimensional shapes shifted down from first grade. Kindergarteners must be able to write several sentences about a specific topic and draw a related picture, while pre-Common Core, they were only expected to draw a picture and write a single sentence. And, in some states, Common Core added new concepts young children are supposed to master, like the ability to put two shapes together to form new shapes.
Many teachers at Pathfinder remember a time early in their careers when school and district officials made it clear that kindergarten was to have a new focus. Pathfinder teacher Missy Turtzo, who started teaching in the late 2000’s in Florida, recalled walking into her classroom after district officials had removed play kitchens and other furniture. “They had taken out all the fun to make it more academic,” Turtzo said.
Pathfinder teacher Stevens, who started teaching elementary school in Washington in 2001, also remembers a more academic kindergarten, devoid of the toys and play areas you see in her classroom today. She said half-day kindergarten is partly to blame.
“[We had] two and a half hours. Get it done. Reading, writing, math. Reading, writing, math. Reading, writing, math. And now, it’s just like, a lot more balanced … you have more time,” she said.
Some states and districts are moving back to a play-based kindergarten classroom after the creation of state early learning standards that emphasize the importance of hands-on experiences. For others, the realization that students were struggling with social-emotional skills in kindergarten was a wake-up call. And for some, ongoing feedback from teachers and experts calling for “developmentally appropriate” activities, rooted in play, inspired a change.
The Mukilteo School District’s adoption of what officials here describe as a developmentally appropriate and joyful kindergarten experience was also inspired by recommendations by Washington’s early childhood experts. A state law mandated full-day kindergarten starting in the 2017-18 school year. To receive funding, districts had to provide experiences in science, arts and physical education, opportunities for hands-on learning and setting up classroom environments that “promote creativity.” State officials also released a guide that encouraged more time for play and cited extensive research on why play is important.
A similar mindset was behind New Hampshire’s move to a play-based kindergarten in 2018, when the legislature amended the state’s education law to mandate that kindergartens adopt a play-based model. “Rigorous structure and heavy curriculum are not intended to be part of the kindergarten experience,” New Hampshire education officials declared. “Rather, educating kindergarten age children can be done through social imitation, learning through expression, and unstructured play within the classroom setting.”
Some districts don’t just stop at kindergarteners: The Watertown City School District in upstate New York has adopted a play-based curriculum for first graders, too.
Kids have reaped benefits from such changes. In West Chester, Pennsylvania, district officials noted referrals to occupational therapy are down, which educators there attribute to the increase in time to work on fine motor skills while playing. A 2016 study of two schools in Texas found that when kindergarten and first grade students received additional time to play in the form of extra recess breaks each day, their academic performance on reading and math “significantly increased.”
Providing more time for play is a popular decision with 5-year-olds. The youngsters in Sara Steven’s classroom at Pathfinders are unanimous: Playtime is their favorite time of the day. A close second? Recess.
During playtime on the recent winter morning, three students in Stevens’ classroom were carefully building a “place for cars” out of magnetic shapes. As one student moved closer to place a square on top of the structure, it suddenly collapsed.
The other two students whipped around and stared at the ruins, both quickly masking their initial look of disappointment. “We can make something else,” one of the students said matter-of-factly.
“Or we can share ours!” the other student said, motioning to a second structure.
Research shows play is a proven way for students to learn academic and nonacademic skills. And Stevens said this is evident to her. During playtime, students naturally learn to identify colors and shapes as they draw masks and build towers, and learn to write as they plan pretend birthday parties, complete with invitations and signs. But more important, she said, her students acquire social skills, like how to work together, use kind words and share.
“Sharing is really hard,” Stevens said as she watched a group of students eagerly hovering around a game on the floor. “They have to talk it out and take turns.”
Child development expert Hirsh-Pasek cautioned that adding play needs to be done thoughtfully. “Don’t just stick play in,” she said. “Make it part and parcel of the learning experience.” While free play has its benefits, Hirsh-Pasek said if the goal is for children to learn, adults need to set up an environment so kids can “muck around” and play with a purpose. “By doing so, they learn more because it’s their learning,” she said.
At Pathfinder and other kindergarten classrooms in the district, playtime is officially called “Play to Learn,” a nod to the fact that the two concepts are intertwined. The block of time devoted to play is bookended by a planning time, when children choose the activity or area of the classroom to spend their time in, as well as a reflection time, when children share what they did or what they made.
When Play to Learn time ends, students eagerly put away their toys and rush to the colorful carpet in the center of the room to tell their classmates about their playtime.
Students at Pathfinder are still learning their letters and numbers and becoming more proficient at writing their names and short sentences. But, in addition to at least 50 minutes of playtime, they also enjoy 35 minutes of recess and 45 minutes of physical education, art, technology or music each day. And teachers say they have the freedom to adjust schedules as needed. When they noticed the introduction of writing was leading to meltdowns at the beginning of the year, for example, teachers pushed their lessons back and devoted time just teaching kids how to hold a pencil.
Educators here said there’s more to their model than just giving kids more time to play. They’ve designed a kindergarten experience based on the needs of 5-year-olds, rather than expecting 5-year-olds to fit into an existing elementary school model. Administrators and teachers said they feel they have more freedom to adjust schedules as needed. When they noticed the introduction of writing was leading to meltdowns at the beginning of the year, for example, teachers pushed their lessons back and devoted time just teaching kids how to hold a pencil.
“You hear a lot of people say ‘this kid is not ready for kindergarten’” said Boze, the principal. “I think with our philosophy and in our vision with an all-kindergarten school, it’s our job to be ready for the kids no matter where they’re coming from. It’s our job to meet every single child wherever they are.”
Daily schedules district-wide for kindergarteners are structured with the understanding that a full-day of school is a lot for a 5-year-old. Annie Johnson, executive director of the department of elementary education for the Mukilteo School District, said for this reason, the district encourages schools to plan more academic-heavy lessons and activities for kindergarteners in the morning. “Some students really struggle with the full day, they are literally exhausted by the afternoon,” Johnson said. By frontloading academics in the morning, “kids can kind of relax and play” during the time when they are most tired from a day of stimulation.
The school environment helps as well: The Pathfinder building was built specifically with kindergarteners in mind by the DLR Group, an international architecture firm. The two-story building is shaped like an S and organized into four mini schools, or “pods,” within the larger school. Each pod has its own specialist who teaches a rotating schedule of art, music, physical education and technology to the students every day. Six classrooms share a large common area flanked by an entire wall of windows. Child-sized bathrooms are located between classrooms, making bathroom breaks quick and efficient. Kids walk through wide hallways painted with colorful wildlife murals. Little nooks under the stairs give children cozy spaces to read or color and provide private areas for one-on-one tutoring. Outside the school, nestled between the building and a protected woodland area, are two large playgrounds with turf, slides and climbing equipment.
Educators here say the intense focus on one grade level is having a positive impact on students, 50 percent of whom are English language learners and 61 percent of whom are low-income. The school boasts an attendance rate of 83 percent, which is slightly higher than the state average. And 93 percent of Pathfinder’s English Learners are making progress, according to school officials.
That’s not to say Pathfinder is without its challenges. Having a separate school for kindergarteners means an extra transition to yet another school when students start first grade. And while kindergarteners at traditional elementary schools can benefit from having older students as mentors, there are no such mentors at Pathfinder.
Although Pathfinder officials don’t have data on how their graduates perform in first grade, principal Cheryl Boze said she frequently hears from first grade teachers who say they can pick out the kids who attended Pathfinder.
“They’re better prepared, they’re further along academically, socially and emotionally. They see our kids as more kind and caring,” Boze said. “So I do believe that what we’re doing is working.”
This story about play-based kindergarten was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.