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What’s the Ideal Mix of Work and Play in Kindergarten?

You may remember kindergarten as being all about about finger painting and snack time, but those days are long gone. Today, kindergarten is more so seen as the beginning of formal school. Expectations have been raised and demands need to be met. Yet to expect a 5-year old to be able to focus on academics for seven hours (the actual required time for kindergarten is mandated per state but is generally in that range) is not realistic. A 5-year old needs play time. How can play time be worked into a kindergartner’s schedule and still ensure educational requirements are being met?

A Matter of Focus

At Legacy Traditional Schools, which includes fourteen charter schools located in Arizona and Nevada, and serves students from kindergarten to grade 8, kindergarten is challenging. “Standards are way more demanding than they ever were,” says Heather Sliker, Director of Academics for the school. “Educators are striving to prepare the children to move to first grade and need to make sure standards are hit.”

This requires focus which may go beyond what a 5-year old can handle. According to an article in Scholastic, attention spans shift in children as they reach age 4 and they begin to be able to focus on activities for longer. According to the article, children at that stage learn to concentrate by partaking in activities that interest them. An article in Parents notes that child development experts claim a typical 5-year old should be able to stay focused on something for two to five minutes times their age. (In other words, a 5-year-old should be able to concentrate for 10 to 25 minutes.) But there are caveats. The focus depends on the activity, and even the time of day. Your kid’s not a morning person? Then focusing on tasks at the beginning of the day will be harder.

Getting a Move On

But it’s not just about focus. Movement will assist in a young child’s learning as well. A 2016 University of Virginia study compared today’s children to 1998’s and found they are spending far less time on self-directed learning (moving freely and doing activities that they themselves chose) and more time in a passive learning environment. Movement, however, is a key to learning for young children. As is explained in an Atlantic article, movement enables children to connect concepts with action and learn via experimentation. Without movement, learning will be hindered.

Keeping children engaged despite their natural tendency to lose focus and be more interested in play is a challenge. One way Legacy Traditional Schools deals with this challenge is play based learning. Sliker explains that the kindergartners take many “brain break” activities and reinforce concepts through manipulatives to get the students active. An example of a brain break activity is after a lesson of 15-20 minutes on adding numbers, the class may stop in the middle and do an activity that includes movement but still includes the standard. Another example is acting out a word problem.

Ais Her, Director of Schools for Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, CA, strongly believes that there is no one right formula for education and play. She also believes the two can and should work together. “Children are in school for many years, and it’s important to have them love to learn,” says Her.  “They think they are playing and develop a love of learning.”

The Montessori theory has been developed over a long period of time. Her says, “Play is open ended for children, and they find their own way to play with things.” Those things are arranged by the teacher and done so for a purpose. Her adds ” Kids think they are playing, but things are done with intention by the teacher.”

Why Teachers Are Key

Sliker also believes good teachers are imperative for kindergartners, particularly because of the increased demands. “When you have a highly effective teacher who’s engaging, the child doesn’t even realize he or she is learning,” says Sliker. “We try to make sure in teaching the students that they have fun and so we incorporate as much activity as we can into daily instruction.”

The article in Parents noted above gives two other suggestions of ways to keep kindergartners focused. First, be aware of individual differences, and second, provide long periods of time for children to do independent activities. Both of these suggestions recognize that children thrive under different circumstances, and that children need space to focus on an area of interest to him/her, regardless of what the rest of the class is working on. Well-trained, attentive teachers are key to ensuring children have these opportunities in kindergarten.

The Bottom Line

Finding ways to make learning fun and keeping students moving can extend the child’s ability to focus. A good teacher makes dull activities fun and can inspire a love of learning. So, while outright playing has been decreased or all but removed from the school day, fun is still very much a part of it. It may even be the key to learning and making sure students meet the standards.

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Author: Larry Bernstein

Larry Bernstein lives in North Jersey with his wife and two sons. In addition to serving as an adjunct and tutor, Larry is a freelance writer who focuses on education, construction, and retail. He has been seeing green rainbows since his beloved Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.