My own memories of kindergarten primarily consist of playing with blocks, putting on costumes in the dramatic play area, being home in time for lunch. Back in my hometown in 1997, kindergarten was only offered as a half-day program, and mostly entailed structured, carefully planned centers that felt simply like playtime, but that actually involved countless opportunities for learning and growth.
Now, as a kindergarten teacher in 2017, a typical day in my classroom looks quite different. While I strive to incorporate choice and play into our routine as much as possible, I also have to be mindful of the academic standards and benchmarks my students need to meet. Finding a balance between the developmental needs of five and six-year olds for creative, imaginative play and academics can be challenging, but it is not impossible. As an undergraduate student in Family Studies/Child Development, I learned both the theoretical and practical justifications for allowing young children to learn through play. Genuine play that is chosen and led by students provides one of the most meaningful contexts in which learning can occur. I truly believe children learn best by constructing knowledge through their experiences. Because play is such a natural and essential part of life for our youngest students, I firmly believe that as teachers, we must both find ways to allow children to learn through play and ascertain how we can assess their learning through play.
If you place an assortment of blocks in front of a kindergartner, he will likely begin building a structure. He might describe the different shapes he is using, experiment with how to balance blocks on top of one another, or make up a story about his structure. If asked, he may count the total number of blocks in his structure as well. All of the aforementioned skills exhibited through this student’s play correspond to academic standards kindergartners are expected to master. One standard in particular that comes to mind is “count to tell the number of objects,” which can frequently be observed and assessed through students’ play. Thus, careful observation of students at play can provide us with valuable assessment data.
However, if we place a worksheet with black-and-white shapes and a pencil in front of the same kindergartner, he may not be able to exhibit his understanding in the same way. Some students may be able to go through the motions and finish the worksheet, but worksheets usually cannot capture kindergartners’ interest or generate the same kind of enthusiasm that self-directed opportunities for play can. Worksheets might present us with straight-forward, “clean” methods of assessment, but they also force our youngest learners to take a very early step away from authenticity.
Students enter kindergarten with a variety of prior educational experiences. Some students may have had one or more years of daycare or preschool, while others may not have had any formal educational or social experiences. Consequently, what kindergartners know and are able to do can vary significantly, particularly at the beginning of the school year. Many students, for example, are able to rote count to ten (or perhaps even higher), but lack an understanding of one-to-one correspondence.
Regardless of any academic understandings they may possess, five and six-year olds are unfamiliar with the experience of sitting still for long periods of time while completing worksheets with pencils. Working on the same activity for a significant chunk of time, forming written numerals, sitting quietly, and even grasping a pencil are all skills that must be learned in school. It is not developmentally appropriate to expect kindergartners to be able to do all of those things successfully -- at least not at the beginning of the school year. And yet, sometimes we do expect all of that (and more) from our youngest students. Afterall, if they can learn all of these very school-oriented skills, we can then assess them with our black and white worksheets.
When I truly consider what kindergarten students need to do in order to show they have mastered the skill of counting to tell the number of objects, I realize that they do not need to write the total number of objects. They do not need to be able to sit silently and count rows of animals on a worksheet. They do not need to demonstrate this skill in isolation from other more meaningful, developmentally appropriate activities. Worksheets make our lives easier. They require less planning and preparation, and potentially less management of behavior as well. However, this kind of assessment does not always feel authentic or appropriate for kindergarteners. So, when I pause and consider the math standard I originally mentioned- “count to tell the number of objects” - I realize there are numerous ways to assess my students’ mastery of this standard.
For some students, inviting them to count how many square, rectangular, and triangular blocks they used in the castle they built during free choice time is the most appropriate and authentic way to assess their ability to count groups of objects. Similarly, I might ask another student to count how many different colors they used in a drawing, or how many people they included in their picture. While these are certainly less formal assessments, and require the ability to converse with students one-on-one, I strongly believe these kinds of opportunities are often the most appropriate way for kindergarten students to demonstrate their knowledge.
Kindergarten has become significantly more “academic” in the past decade, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if kindergarten teachers rely solely on assessment methods that are more developmentally appropriate for older students, we are certainly doing a disservice to the five and six-year olds we teach. Worksheets and more traditional forms of assessment have their place in a kindergarten classroom, but they should not take the place of other, less formal, more genuine opportunities for kindergartners to show what they know. A student who may not be able to sit silently for 15 minutes and count rows of black-and-white objects on a worksheet may be able to count the blocks she included in her tower, or the shapes she made out of Playdough. While there is a distinction between this kind of assessment and more formal assessments, it is important to bear in mind the end result is the same: students demonstrating their mastery of academic standards.
Katie O’Hearn is a Kindergarten teacher at Middleton Elementary School in SAU 69 in New Hampshire