Play is important to learning

Susie Kaeser

When winter finally broke, I rounded up three neighbor kids and headed for a hike at Shaker Lakes. Decked out in their rubber rain boots, they collected and tossed stones, flirted with the mud, balanced on fallen trees, and waded in the rushing water. There is nothing more fun than watching curious children. They were uninhibited kids being kids. They were playing and learning.

Play is a wonderful way to learn. I am concerned that the emphasis on measuring children’s performance in school is not only undermining good education and teacher morale, but also robbing the younger generation of the exploration that is important to a healthy childhood. I am no expert in early childhood development, but I am a parent and classroom volunteer. I know fear and failure are not the way to get young minds to let loose and grow.

The pressure to cover more and more information that will be tested permeates life in our classrooms, damaging a new generation of learners and their teachers. It undercuts the best of what makes schools wonderful places. Children need a daily diet of discovery and imagination, and space for social and emotional growth. Individuals should be free to master their developmental tasks at their own pace, without consequences for not meeting a set timeline.

We are constantly testing our children and using the results to make serious decisions for which the tests were not designed. Next year, federal law will require testing to start in kindergarten. Learning that nurtures the imagination and encourages social development will shrink in a pressure cooker of evaluation, data and fixing.

This is putting stress on students and teachers and changing how they spend the school day. It undermines the school as a safe nurturing space, shortchanges age-appropriate learning, and teaches children that learning is only about knowing the right answer. No good purpose is served by adding stress to young minds. Children are born curious and ready to learn. When they connect with what interests them, the sky is the limit. Our job is to give them the opportunity to open themselves to the wonders around them, but neither the legislature nor Congress seems to think keeping curiosity alive is important.

Put too much weight on what students learn by when and you wring the motivation out of them. Many children already face heavy burdens, and school needs to be a safe and comforting space where they can put those loads aside and find the joy of learning, not more hurdles.

I recently interviewed two wonderful teachers who come to school excited to witness their students learn. As hard as they work to shield their students from the demands of the testing and accountability requirements, they can’t. Pressure is a dominant theme—pressure to cover everything, pressure to pass. Students are anxious. Children who start behind and then grow, but not enough to pass, become discouraged.   

“I feel boxed in,” said 35-year kindergarten teacher Belinda Farrow. “I feel like we’ve taken the life out of learning.” One of her hardest decisions was taking the housekeeping center out of her classroom. “There is no longer time for this important kind of play.” Victoria Abdow lamented the pressure to cover so much. “When can kids explore and be kids?” she asked.

Our teachers are doing their best to nurture while balancing test-driven demands, but there isn’t enough time to do it all. Social development is the first thing that gets short shrift, then fun. A strength of our national education tradition is that students are expected to do more than play back information. I worry this is being sacrificed in the name of raising achievement.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 7, Issue 5, Posted 2:07 PM, 05.05.2014