Brenda Payne, a kindergarten teacher at Venable Elementary School, teaches a student about shapes and colors.

Two children are building an addition onto a castle. Beside them, a dinosaur rides a train between two giggling students. A girl in the corner smells the meal she’s cooking in her toy kitchen.

This is a typical morning in Brenda Payne’s kindergarten classroom at Venable Elementary School. However, Payne, who has taught kindergarten for 32 years, said the role of play in the kindergarten classroom is much different than it was just 10 years ago.

“My center time, which I call learning centers because you learn when you play, used to be an hour long, and now it’s down to about 30 minutes,” Payne said.

Daphna Bassok, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education who recently completed a study examining how kindergarten classrooms have changed, said the increase in academic content instruction to five-year-olds — a nationwide trend — can be attributed to many factors.

“One of the big things is pressure from accountability and things like No Child Left Behind,” Bassok said. “Schools are under an immense amount of pressure to ensure that by third grade their students are performing well on assessments.”

That pressure, Bassok added, has trickled down to the lower grades as schools begin introducing academic content earlier.

“The main takeaway [of the study] is really that kindergarten is quite changed over a relatively short period of time,” Bassok said.

For example, about 10 years ago kindergarten teachers didn’t always expect every student to know the alphabet and how to read by the end of the school year, whereas now that is a major point of emphasis.

But, the Curry School professor added, the idea that play is at odds with learning is a “false dichotomy.”

“Oftentimes the way they’re learning is by engaging in discovery, play and interactions,” Bassok said. “There are ways [to teach academic content] in a way that is engaging and fun in order to meet five-year-olds where they are.”

Payne agreed, and said she now tries to weave content and play together.

“I’m a firm believer in [students] learning better when it’s put to music … so there’s a lot of songs and poetry, which is also fun and kind of like play,” Payne said.

“When we take that away from children, I think that they can’t really figure out what they want to do in life,” she added.

In addition to pressure from the accountability movement, Bassok said the proliferation of state-sponsored preschool programs has led to an increase in students attending preschool, and thus arriving to kindergarten at more advanced stages.

“They’re entering kindergarten with a different set of skills and experiences than kids did a decade ago,” she said.

While Payne said that’s true for most of her students, not all are benefiting from early-childhood education, and, as a result, she’s seeing the skills gap intensify between students who have not been afforded the same opportunities as their peers.

“When there is a disparity, it’s wide,” Payne said.

As the kindergarten classroom continues to evolve and the balance between play and content shifts, Bassock said it’s important to recognize the new pressures that both teachers and young learners are facing.

“Teachers are experiencing an immense amount of pressure to do a lot of different things at once, and to help kids in so many different ways,” Bassok said. “I think what happens in practice a lot is that teachers feel a lot of pressure to cram in as much material in a way that might be stressful or not particularly engaging for kids.”

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