Kindergarten teachers have long known how to use play as a teaching tool, and now are finding that they must show school administrators that it is more than just putting out toys.

At kindergartens in Omaha, kindergartners get an hour each day to engage in pretend play, dig their hands in a tub of sand, or play school with puppets. Teachers like Liberty Elementary’s Luisa Palomo contend that play is a vital tool for teaching.  The pendulum that recently swung toward an academic focus on kindergarten now appears to be swinging back to an earlier  time when classes devoted time to learning shapes, letters, and numbers as well as creative play and finger painting.

As children are playing school, Emma Dobson, a dual language kindergarten teacher, observes and occasionally interjects with prompts and questions in Spanish. However, she leave them to use their imagination and direct their own play. She soon realizes that they are imitating a recent lesson about feelings that a school counselor had given, but they break it down into kid friendly language.

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The initiative in Omaha Public Schools is called Transforming Kindergarten.  Teachers acknowledge that children need to learn numbers and letters, but they also learn through purposeful play.  They also learn how to socialize, share, and negotiate with classmates, and these skills are just as important as flashcards and worksheets.

“It’s not as easy as just putting toys out for them to play,” Dobson said. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it.”

Palomo and Dobson co-teach a dual language immersion class.  The class is divided into two teams, which spend half the day speaking English and half the day speaking Spanish. Students have a full hour of play after lunch, exploring different stations set up in the classroom, including an easel for painting, a play kitchen, and a cash register with a working calculator and play money.

Palermo says that teachers, families, and principals favor adding more play to the kindergarten day.

“No principal has ever said ‘Why are you wasting time?’ ” she said. “I’ve never had a family say ‘Why are you letting them play?’ I think, as an adult, I’d hate to be told you can’t laugh, can’t smile, can’t make mistakes. The kids are so happy.”

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