Play Ball! A Home Run for Kindergarten

by Kathleen Bailer, John Ashley School and Cowing School Principal, West Springfield

kinderIn Massachusetts opening day for the Red Sox is a cause to celebrate.  At my school in Western Massachusetts of approximately 235 Kindergartners, we celebrated opening day by donning Red Sox apparel and giving away Red Sox blazed toy trucks, wristbands and t-shirts all donated to us by a parent with great connections.

But in addition to great baseball, Massachusetts hit a homerun with its Elements of High Quality Kindergarten document. The official title is Fostering Learning in the Early Years: Elements of High Quality Kindergarten. Take a look here. If you wrote the Kindergarten 701 grant this year, you know this was a key document. It was developed jointly by staff from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department), the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), and Early Childhood Coordinators from Public School Districts across the Commonwealth. At aligns with QRIS and NAEYC.

This document contains a combination of research and best practice in early childhood education.  Phrases like those listed below reflect the early childhood philosophies and approaches of Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Project Based Learning, Tools of the Mind and use key research from Piaget, Vygotsky, Copple & Brendekamp, Gullo, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk and Singer and Katz.

  • engage with children in center activities by talking and interacting with them and with materials to deepen and extend children’s thinking;
  • use children’s interest in and curiosity about the world to engage them with new content and developmental skills, and to encourage repeated practice of emerging skills;
  • observe children regularly throughout the day to learn about their interests, what they know, and what they are thinking about;
  • provide visual supports and explicit introduction of vocabulary to support positive interactions between adults and children and children and their peers;
  • use instructional approaches such as genuine modeling, scaffolding, and role playing to support children as they learn social skills and attitudes.

My favorite statement in the document can be found under the heading “Instruction” on page 9.  When I read it, I had to read it again as I could not believe how definitive it was: Play is the leading instructional approach for delivering standards-based curriculum that is aligned with the MA Curriculum Frameworks. Play, hands-down, is how young children learn and should be the approach in our early childhood classrooms. Afterwards, I felt like making a badge to wear saying, “No More Worksheets” but decided against it for the phrase, “Playful learning and learning through play”.

How are you using the HQK document to promote positive changes in your classrooms?

Part II: Playful Engagement

The HQK document came out about the same time as the Social Emotional Learning and Play and Learning standards and soon in their footsteps, the new Massachusetts Science, Technology/Engineering Frameworks based on NGSS.  As a result, we have spent the year talking about fostering playful learning and learning through play while supporting children’s social emotional needs, the benefit of observation and documentation and also providing experiences which foster deep learning in the sciences.

kindersciAt first my veteran teachers commented how it seems as though we are “returning to how it used to be”. However now I think we are all seeing the shift more towards 21st century play based learning.  To the child, it is a return to play as their most natural way of learning, however for the teacher it is intentional teaching and planning.  21st century early childhood teachers provide materials that extend children’s learning, utilize essential questions to target the learning experience, explicitly teach targeted vocabulary and provide opportunities for young learners to engage in thinking and feedback to extend their learning and foster higher level thinking.

I have seen a shift in some of my Kindergarten classrooms as we have been exploring these documents and unpacking the new standards.

  • Two teachers changed the configuration of their classrooms to promote center based playful learning while others have been experimenting more in providing authentic learning opportunities.
  • Requests for clay and worms have come my way.
  • Plants brighten the classroom windows.
  • Partially painted realistic pictures of trees, that the students chose to paint during free choice, adorn the art easel to complete the next day.
  • Quiet calming areas have popped up where children can find noise cancelling headphones, sensory toys and calming strategies posted on the wall to take a moment to relax and regroup.
  • Students line the front sidewalk listening for and drawing signs of spring.

kindersci1I am excited to be a part of this shift in early childhood classrooms and a leader in the Massachusetts public schools. I am eager to see what creative approaches transpire next year as we move deeper in our work together.  I feel as though my teachers and I are surfing a great wave that will result in a high level of reflective and intentional teaching and happy, engaged, playful children who leave our kindergarten supported and curious about learning.

What does 21st century science look like in your classrooms?

KathleenKathleen Bailer is an early childhood educational leader serving in West Springfield as the Principal of John Ashley School and Cowing School, housing 235 kindergartners and 130 preschoolers respectively. Prior to West Springfield, Kathleen has been involved in early childhood education for 25 years, teaching elementary school and art education as well as leading schools in the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley. She is best known for her Reggio inspired film on the power of clay in early childhood called, “I AM Clay” and her product Magic Mud, a natural clay created for young children. You can connect with Kathleen on Twitter @WSPSAshley or via Voxer @kbailer where she is an active member of MESPA’s Voxer group.

Are you interested in sharing your ideas, insights and questions? If so, click here to sign up for a post. Julie Vincentsen, Principal of Ruggles Lane School, will reach out with specifics. Are you interested but nervous because you’ve never blogged before and don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry – as long as you know how to use Microsoft Word you will be up to this challenge. We write for our communities all the time – this just changes your audience. You probably could even take a current newsletter you’ve written and repurpose it for your colleagues.


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