N.H. bill calls for less structure, more playtime in kindergarten

  • Rep Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, presents a bill to mandate “play-based” kindergarten curricula to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, April, 10, 2018. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A bill creating statewide requirements for “play-based” kindergarten cleared a Senate committee unanimously Tuesday, heading to the Senate floor after a string of legislative successes.

House Bill 1499 would add new standards for school kindergarten curricula, requiring that lessons be engaging and based on “early childhood best teaching practices and play-based learning.”

That means classes that involve movement, music, creativity and exploration, according to the bill. Under the proposed standards, literacy would be taught through guided readings; meanwhile, teachers would be required to leave space for unstructured time.

It’s an approach to kindergarten that, to many, may seem self-evident. But Rep. Victoria Sullivan, the bill’s sponsor, argues the language is necessary to reflect changing times. Since New Hampshire’s adoption of the Common Core Standards Initiative – a federally led effort to unify assessment standards in math and literacy – kindergarten classes have become overly rigorous and performance-based, Sullivan said.

“We have placed so much emphasis on the rigor and demands of these little learners that we have ignored the need to nurture them as people,” she said at a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. As school districts continue to mull taking on full-day kindergarten programs, the standards only grow in importance, she argued.

Play-based learning is broadly supported by research, Sullivan and other supporters say. An Illinois State University meta-study last month concluded that early childhood programs focused on academic training “have been found to dampen motivation to learn and diminish regulation of attention and behavior.”

“Until evidence indicates otherwise, returning play, including make-believe play, to center-stage in the curriculum is a crucial step toward restoring developmentally appropriate experiences to children’s classrooms and to their home lives,” says the report, authored by Laura Berk.

And Sullivan’s bill has proved popular, clearing the House last month, 328-8, ahead of Tuesday’s 4-0 Senate committee vote. But some have been more skeptical. In the House floor debate March 22, some conservatives raised objections to the imposition of additional standards from the state on to school districts.

In a statement Tuesday, Megan Tuttle, president of NEA-NH, the state teachers’ association, echoed the point.

“Our concern about HB 1499 is that the Legislature is now mandating a specific approach to early childhood education, and, however well-intentioned, we all know that education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition,” Tuttle said.

Kindergarten, Tuttle added, should be a balance between teaching practices that challenge and inspire, and include activities ranging from language arts to mathematics to physical education. “We’re just not sure HB 1499 as written describes such a well-balanced program,” she said.

Still, Sullivan said the teachers she has spoken to are supportive of the idea – including many from around the country. On Tuesday, Andrew Wood, a child care provider at the Children’s Center in Wolfeboro, which offers after-school kindergarten programs and follows play-based learning, touted the benefits of the approach.

“I’ve seen firsthand what wonder play-based learning can bring,” he said in testimony. “And I’ve also seen the stress and anxiety that the current models can cause, because no matter how hard our public school teachers work to disguise it and hide it from the children, anyone with a stake in education should be aware that those early years have increased exponentially in expectations.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)