• Rebecca Cothern

Play vs. Rigor?


I’ve heard a lot about play-based learning verses rigor of instruction. States and administrations want higher test scores and believe more rigor in the classroom will do just that. On the other hand teachers and parents want to see young children have free play time where they can explore and just be kids. I’ve looked at both sides and thought about the issue myself and have some conclusions. First look at the definition of the two words- play and rigor. Play is defined as an, “exercise or activity for amusement or recreation.” Rigor is defined as, “severity”. I don’t know about you but I don’t want education to be an activity for amusement or severe in any nature. I want education to be important and embraced; to see the light in a child’s eye when they learn something new; to have a child’s full attention because they can’t get enough of it.

After looking at the definitions I thought of classrooms that would be an ideal fit for both philosophies. In my mind came a classroom where students where happy and joyful. Play was happening all around. However, as merry as the scene was to behold I saw little to no reading happening. They had a book nook but it was rarely chosen. Students could choose fine motor toys and building blocks. But, there was no explicit writing, letters, or math areas. At the end of the year some students were ready for the next grade while other students were behind or even at-risk of failing the next grade needing extra intervention during the summer.

The second classroom I envisioned was an early childhood classroom filled with desks and chairs. There were no cozy areas or play centers. Instruction was delivered by the teacher in front of the classroom while students sat in desks expected to sit quietly, listen, and absorb the information. Once again at the end of the year some students were ready for the next grade while others were behind or even being held back because they were not ready to advance.

Of course, the second classroom was harder to watch because you could see the look on each child’s face pleading for more engaging and purposeful activities- to run and play and just be a kid. However, both classrooms which I witnessed for myself delivered the same results- some kids ready to move on while others were left behind to fend for themselves. So, what do we do?

As an educator, we should be able to view both sides as lacking. Young children do not learn through “rigor”. Sitting in a desk does not open your mind to learning. Research is strong and we have seen throughout our nation and our world examples of play-based environments where students succeed. However, just having toys and games will not teach a child either. Once again we look at the research that shows students need explicit instruction on specific core items to succeed. In short, we need a balance.

Let’s look at the early childhood education in one of the world’s leading education leaders. Finland leads most the world on international assessments and many will tout the country’s play-based learning as its cause. But let’s look at this theory a little closer. Yes, Finland’s National Board of Education states, “Learning through play is essential.” We all know this but that is only the first paragraph of the country’s education policy. If we look closer we see the country has national curriculum guidelines for all early childhood (even though early childhood services are a right but not required by the country.) These national guidelines promote play, physical activity, and artistic expression but this is only three components of the curriculum. The Finnish guidelines also calls for educators to orient or introduce concepts of mathematics, natural sciences, history, arts, and other areas of society. These areas of orientation are then directly linked to subject areas. It is left up to local schools to write their own curriculum from here but the Finnish National Board of Education states that, “Pre-primary education lays emphasis on the preparation for school.” That is why the majority of Finland’s students enter school with solid reading and math skills.

It is my belief that education needs to combine all the research and provide explicit instruction in key areas through a play environment to help every student achieve. We don’t get upset when a doctor takes quick information on our children’s bodies (temperature, height, pulse, etc.) to determine if our children our healthy. Or, when there appears to be concern, when the doctor orders follow up exams to make sure our children’s body is functioning properly. And we definitely are not upset when a caring doctor orders treatment and medicine to correct any problems found within our children’s bodies. Why then do we get upset when teachers take quick assessments of our children’s learning and prescribe interventions to help our children succeed in their schooling? Yes we can over test and give assessments that have no meaning. But, as teachers, we are the physicians of children’s minds. It is our job to diagnose, treat, and make sure that every mind is growing properly. If we fail to do our job it is the children who will suffer.

Imagine now this third classroom where play-based learning and explicit instruction of the curriculum are combined. Students play at centers were each area is tied to and aligned with a different part of the curriculum. Teachers and aides facilitate and deepen student’s understanding as they question and problem solve with students in each center. We see a trained teacher meeting with small groups and individuals who have been diagnosed as needing extra intervention to help them succeed. Students also find time throughout the day for short periods to gather together on a rug to read stories, to problem solve and discuss real-life situations, and to receive whole-group instruction. Students work on projects and hands-on learning activities both inside and outside supporting all research in early childhood. This is not an imaginary classroom however; we see this classroom throughout our nation in the loving care of a true educator who has support from parents, administrators, and community members. Where even though children may live in poverty or have difficult home situations education is truly making a life altering difference in these young minds.


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© 2013 by Rebecca Carlisle Cothern. All rights reserved.