“First you work and then it’s play.”

The words of 4-year-old Misty still ring in my ears, as she described her impending rite of passage to kindergarten. When asked what she would do in kindergarten, she replied, “Play and learn. Actually, learn and play, ’cause it’s learn first and then play.”

Misty was one of two dozen “graduating” preschoolers I interviewed in North Carolina and Vermont while researching my (unpublished) dissertation about preschoolers’ perceptions of, and attitudes toward, kindergarten. I wanted to understand and give voice to an important perspective missing from the school readiness debates–the children themselves. I learned much in the process, realizing that even at this early age, children were aware of the distinction between play and work as they prepared to enter “the big school.”

Through their words and drawings, children conveyed that kindergarten would be a learning experience filled with numerous activities.  Very few children expressed any uncertainty about what to expect; the majority had very clear ideas about the activities they would be doing in kindergarten. These activities fell into two categories–learn and play.

The children described learning as the work of kindergarten. They would be working earnestly to acquire new information and skills. Oddly reminiscent of the three R’s of traditional schooling, they described learning activities centered around reading, writing, and arithmetic. They were expecting to be immersed in an academic learning environment which promoted literacy above all else. Little or no reference was made to science, social studies, music, or other areas. The children were looking forward to acquiring these skills and meeting the expectations of teachers. Even when it came to art, I was told artists need to go to school “to learn how to draw like they’re supposed to.”

Playground, from a child’s perspective

Wardrobe considerations were also important when it came to learning. As Marci confided “I had to buy a new backpack because I’ll need homework.” A thousand miles away, Brie confirmed that homework was coming. “You learn how to do homework and how to do letters. If you’re big people, you’ve got to do homework.”

Not everyone was excited about the prospect about learning, though. When I asked Dawn how she was feeling about going to kindergarten, she lamented “Well, I don’t think it’s going to be so good because you know it’s hard to really listen and, you know, stand around and learn something. It’s not going to be so good, because I know that it’s really hard to just learn because learning is a really hard job to do.”

In addition to the hard work of learning, children created a very strong association between going to kindergarten and playing.  They perceived kindergarten would be fun, linking it closely to the opportunity to play. Casey explained, “Kindergarten is really fun. You get to do fun things. You get to play. You get to play a lot.” Heading to school in the fall with her third-grade brother, Twyla was glad that she was going to be a kindergartner. “I think it’s going to be . . . big kids learning stuff and little kids playing.”

The importance of play in the lives of kindergartners was evident throughout the interviews and in their drawings, and they fully expected it to continue when they arrive in the fall.  Preschoolers envisioned kindergarten as an environment filled with toys, many new playmates, and opportunities to play both indoors and outdoors.  Although learning would take place in kindergarten, they were anticipating ample opportunities for play. And that meant being able to make some of their own choices. Learning was imposed, play was freely chosen. Many were resigned to the realization that they’d be making a transition to a more teacher-directed agenda, but hopeful that play wouldn’t have to be sacrificed.

In the end, children perceived kindergarten to be a place where they would both learn and play. They expected to acquire new skills and information in kindergarten and, although learning may be difficult, they wanted it and expected to be successful with it. They also made it clear how important play remained in their lives, as if pleading their case for retaining play in kindergarten.

The play debates are likely to continue for years to come. No one disputes the value of play in the lives of young children; nor do we dispute the need for children to gain important intellectual skills, not always gained independently. As discussions continue about the appropriate balance of each, let’s not forget that there is an additional stakeholder group involved–those who were born in 2009 or later.

Illustrator James Estes may have captured it in a cartoon conversation between two  preschoolers building castles in the sandbox, “Next year we have to start school . . . You realize that’ll be the end of life as we know it.” If it weren’t so true, it would be funny.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow

One Response to “First you work and then it’s play.”

  1. […] skills. But NIEER Research Fellow Jim Squires presents an often overlooked perspective in a new blog: that of preschoolers […]

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