Balancing work, play in classrooms

Some young children's lives are too hurried, too structured and too full of academics

October 22, 2006|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

In the corner of the kindergarten classroom, four little girls in pink shirts stacked large cardboard blocks in rows to build a castle as tall as they were - even when standing on tippy-toes. Every few minutes a group of blocks would tumble in a heap, and laughter would erupt.

Nearby, a girl climbed on a table to investigate what imprint her knees would make as she crawled across Play-Doh.

Old-fashioned play such as that in Jody Herman's classroom at Elkridge Elementary in Howard County is becoming less common these days as Maryland schools phase in full-day kindergarten and encourage a more academic curriculum. The heightened focus on lessons is part of a national trend aimed at increasing test scores in early grades.

The challenge for teachers like Herman, who believes that dolls and Play-Doh can be as important as books, is to maintain a balance in her classroom.

Too often, the sort of creative play she encourages is relegated to a few minutes stuck between reading and math rather than being an integral part of a child's day, according to a clinical report released Oct. 9 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It warns that some children live lives that are too structured, too hurried and too full of academics - creating pressures that can lead to behavior problems.

"I have seen an incredible increase in stress in children," said Daniel Levy, a Baltimore-area pediatrician and president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It is manifested in headaches and bellyaches to outright school refusal."

The report says parents need to throttle back the pressure they put on their children, allowing them time to play and grow.

"Many parents seem to feel as though they are running on a treadmill to keep up, yet dare not slow their pace for fear their children will fall behind," the report said.

It notes a disconnect between what pediatricians and child psychologists say is good for children and what schools are teaching.

School systems across the state, including Howard County's, have been phasing in full-day kindergarten over several years. The last schools that are half-day this year will become all-day in the fall.

Herman likes the extra time a full day gives her with pupils, who remain in her classroom until shortly before 4 p.m. She feels less need to rush through the subjects she needs to cover. And she believes that kindergarten teachers have gotten smarter about how to teach in ways that allow children to be creative and gives them choices.

When an assistant principal came back from an administrators meeting several years ago and told Herman that it looked as though the blocks and the plastic kitchen in her classroom would soon be gone, she told him: "If the blocks and the kitchen leave, so will I."

The blocks stayed and so did she.

Even so, her pupils have only a short recess and one play period at the end of the day. The rest of the time is spent on structured activities from art to math. Her classroom walls are covered with letters and numbers.

County administrators see Herman, 50, a 29-year veteran, as one of their premier kindergarten teachers, and they agree with her balanced approach. Each pupil can grow only as far as his or her developmental level will allow, she said.

"There are some things that are developmentally appropriate for some children and not for others," she said.

What worries some pediatricians and child psychologists is that children are not only spending too much time on academics in school, they are playing differently than they did 20 years ago.

These days, young children spend hours watching television, using computers and playing video games. When they play, they often re-create the scenes they see on a screen rather than creating their own stories with simple toys.

When children play with blocks, as they do in Herman's classroom, they learn a lot of lessons, said Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. They learn to put larger blocks on the bottom; they learn to balance them so they can build higher.

"They are learning about gravity and geometry," Levin said.

But most importantly, they learn, "I can figure out the world and it is satisfying to do it."

The process develops a child's ability to solve problems - a skill that is crucial in learning to read and be successful in school, said Levin, the author of several books on the subject.

"It is harder to teach children these days, because it is harder to get them excited about problem-solving," she said.

Herman agrees that there has been a change in her pupils over the years. These days, she said, she finds many do not have the social skills their predecessors had. She sometimes finds it necessary to teach children how to greet one another in the morning. Some, she said, haven't learned to say hello to each other in a nice way.

Pediatricians and child psychologists say they believe educators are ignoring basic principles of child development when they try to teach children too early.

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