STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

When classrooms become all work and no play, kids lose valuable learning experiences

Young boy doing homework
Eric Cuthbert / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

When my oldest daughter started preschool, I was surprised by the amount of homework she would get. She was only four years old, but already bringing home a packet of worksheets on Monday to finish by Friday.

It's been a long time since my own preschool and kindergarten years, but I don't recall having such a rigorous curriculum. I do, however, remember playing and "doing" in the classroom.

Kids need experiential learning – acting and then reflecting on their experiences – to acquire knowledge. Yet, self-directed play is becoming increasingly rare in early childhood classrooms, replaced instead with more structured, and more academic environments.

Kindergarten and preschool classrooms across the country are structuring kids' time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between "work" and "play," and restricting kids' physical movement. A study from University of Virginia found children are spending far less time moving freely and doing activities they choose, and more time in a passive learning environment than they were in 1998.

Research has shown kids need opportunities to move because there's a link between memory and movement, it allows children to learn through trial and error, and helps them connect concepts to actions.

For example, two groups of third-graders were given this word problem:

Two hippos and two alligators are at the zoo. Pete the zookeeper feeds them at the same time. Pete gives each hippo seven fish. He gives four to the alligators.

One group read through the problem twice, the other group acted out the story as they read it. According to University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock:

Kids who acted out the story did better on this problem. The kids who read the problem often got “11” as a solution. They had missed the word “each” in the problem. But because the acting kids had physically mimed giving each hippo seven fish before moving on, the difference was ingrained. What was important was matching the words with specific action; that led to enhanced learning. And after they’d acted it out they could actually do it in their head and get some of the same benefits.

Vanessa Durand is a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. She saysfreedom of movement is necessary for children to meet their developmental milestones:

Children learn by experiencing their world using all of their senses. The restriction of movement, especially at a young age, impedes the experiential learning process.

In many schools, kids are getting short breaks or none at all. Parents in Florida whose children have no school recesshave been fighting to get it added to the curriculum. And schools that have integrated more movement and free play, like 15-minute recesses throughout the day, are finding students are more focused and do better academically. Instructional time has also increased because teachers are spending less time redirecting students or reteaching because of misbehavior.

Aleta Margolis is founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Inspired Teaching. She wrote in The Washington Post:

Higher-level instruction, provided by teachers who have strong training and support, elevates classrooms from static places where we create forced fidgeters and compliers to vibrant learning environments that build expert problem solvers, inventors, and creators. For school to be a place where the talents of young people are cultivated rather than extinguished, we need to give students the freedom and responsibility to tinker, explore, test, prod, and physically interact with the world around them.

It's essential not to lose out on the benefits of physical and imaginative learning – trading building blocks for worksheets – in an effort to improve the academic skills of young learners. It all goes hand-in-hand.