Q: They said blocks and dramatic play were not appropriate in my son's kindergarten, and were planning to remove them. Some of my friends say their learning centers, including blocks, are intact. Did the Michigan Department of Education say these things don't belong? — Concerned Parent
A: I was able to reach the Michigan Department of Education's Office of Early Childhood and Family Services and I've been in touch by e-mail and phone with Lindy Buch, the director, and Richard Lower, supervisor of the Preschool and Early Elementary Programs.
They told me the state's education department does not have a policy that prohibits the use of blocks and dramatic play areas in kindergartens. In addition, they said the state wouldn't set guidelines saying that, because blocks and dramatic play are completely appropriate in kindergarten.
Buch agreed that sometimes administrators, principals and even parents don't fully understand that kindergartners need hands-on and concrete experiences to internalize what they are learning. Adults need to understand that time to move about and work in teacher-planned learning centers is not play, but an appropriate and successful teaching and learning method supported by research.
She said, "If someone asked me about kindergarten I would refer them to the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the new 'Developmentally Appropriate Practices' book, which includes an entire section devoted to kindergarten." Buch also said the publications "Reaching Standards and Beyond in Kindergarten" and "Kindergarten Today" are relevant.
NAEYC has been a highly respected organization among state departments of education and universities for more than 60 years, providing books and research to the early education field such as "The Block Book" and "Numbers in Preschool and Kindergarten."
She said her department hopes school districts try to hire kindergarten teachers who have early childhood endorsements and/or expertise; our own district has always tried to do this. Buch also said MDE relies on national and state professional organizations and intermediate school districts to help local districts with hiring and professional development.
Buch's office does not monitor K-12 school district curricula or instruction for kindergarten.
"We can give advice, and we try to constantly remind the public and teachers that the Grade Level Content Expectations are for the end of the school year, not the beginning of the year," she said. She suggested that teachers work gradually toward the content expectations.
Buch hopes that all-day kindergarten will give the teachers a more relaxed time frame in which to present curriculum content. She agreed the full day can provide time to offer a greater variety of developmentally appropriate ways for children to internalize content through experiences in learning centers and by working in small groups.
Buch said the state's curriculum unit is responsible for content expectations and that guidance for how to reach these standards in age-appropriate ways is being considered and discussed.
Guidance, if it happens, might help ease pressure on kindergarten teachers to prioritize or push academic content and, instead, keep class time balanced with other good things that have always been a part of an excellent kindergarten curriculum.
I talked with Jame McCall, executive director of the Traverse City Area Public Schools elementary and special education programs, about parents' concerns over removing dramatic play and blocks from some of the kindergartens. She seemed surprised.
She said she was not aware blocks, other equipment or dramatic play areas were being removed. She felt these were all appropriate to use in kindergartens for learning and reinforcement of skills, and said she would look into it. McCall said that if blocks had been removed in a particular kindergarten, it was probably due to a safety issue such as a child throwing blocks.
I feel there could have been another solution that would not have deprived the other children of using blocks.
McCall spoke very highly of our kindergarten teachers. She is happy to be able to place new teachers with mentors who are experienced kindergarten teachers. She also feels that all-day kindergarten will help teachers have more time to know and work with their children, meeting their individual needs.
McCall was particularly pleased the kindergarten teachers will start meeting regularly again as they did in the past to share ideas and strategies.
In October: More about kindergarten and testing children's progress.
Evelyn Petersen is an award-winning parenting columnist and early childhood educator and author who lives in Traverse City; see her website at askevelyn.com. For more columns from Evelyn Petersen, visit record-eagle.com/askevelyn.