Loading... Please wait...

[REPORT] Block play and performance standards: Using unstructured materials to teach academic content



Play has long had a key role in early childhood education, where it has been viewed as an efficient “medium” for promoting all aspects of child development (e.g., Johnson, Christie, & Wardle, 2005; Van Hoorn, Nourot, Scales, & Alward, 2007). Preschool programs have routinely allocated large amounts of time to center time during which children could choose to engage in a variety of play-related activities, including play with different types of blocks and other open-ended construction materials (Drew & Rankin, 2004).

Major policy shifts in preschool education, including the standards movement and the new “science-based” perspective on early learning are starting to erode play’s curricular status. Zigler and Bishop-Josef (2004, p. 1) warn:

In recent years, children’s play has come under serious attack. Many preschools and elementary schools have reduced or even eliminated play time from their schedules….Play is being replaced by lessons targeting cognitive development and the content of standardized testing, particularly in the area of literacy and reading.

Play is being shunted aside in early childhood programs in favor of more direct forms of instruction that address the new ‘Pre- K basics’ of language, early literacy and numeracy skills.

Two majors shifts in policy, originating in the latter decades of the 20th century, have contributed to this dramatic shift in play’s status in early learning, especially as it applies in language and literacy domains. One is the powerful movement to prevent reading difficulties which has given rise to a new perspective on reading instruction that is anchored in a body of ‘Scientifically Based Reading Research’ (SBRR) (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The other is the standards movement, with its persistent press for accountability, presently manifested in the rise of state-level early childhood academic standards, the development of standardized assessments of academic achievement at the preschool level, and a heavy emphasis on school readiness (Kagan & Lowenstein, 2004). The combination of the science of reading and standards converge to form current conceptions of “best practice” that, at first glance, appear to have little in common with play (Christie & Roskos, 2006).

We firmly believe that play with blocks and other open-ended resources can provide an ideal context for meeting curriculum standards and promoting young children’s early literacy and oral language skills, logical reasoning and creative problem solving abilities, and social/emotional competence. To illustrate this point, we present examples of how research has linked constructive play with several of the Arizona Early Learning Standards.

Click here to download the full report [.doc format]