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Creative Play and Scientific Inquiry, Part 1: Preparing Kids for More Than Just a Test

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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Creative play on the part of young children may be far more valuable than anyone has realized. I caught a fascinating story about this issue on NPR last week.

The critical discovery, according to the report, is that "social pretend play is an excellent means for exercising and building up the executive functions of working memory (children must hold their own role and those of others in mind), inhibitory control (children must inhibit acting out of character), and cognitive flexibility (children must flexibly adjust to unexpected twists and turns in the evolving plot). But social pretend play doesn't have much value if children are free to abandon a play scenario after a few moments or are not held accountable for staying within their chosen role.

"Adults need to facilitate any play -- adults who are trained in observing children and in understanding how play contributes to their mastery of concepts and skills," the NPR report concludes.

These comments led me to an epiphany: In the past decade, we have moved toward standardized tests for kindergartners and a greater amount of structured instruction for young students. The pressure on teachers, in many cases, forces us to reduce the amount of time we make available for creative play. I believe the researchers are suggesting that this creative play results in an increase in student self-regulation. It seems to me that the more we pile on test preparation and scripted curriculum, the less ability students will have to focus and to exercise self-control. They will also exhibit less curiosity.

As a science teacher, I see parallels in the work we do with older students. I have felt for a long time that students are far more motivated and engaged when we give them the opportunity to develop their own investigations, to engage in real inquiry into questions they care about. But the emphasis recently has been on getting them to memorize ever longer lists of science facts so they can answer multiple-choice questions.

When I was working with a fourth-grade class last year, I asked them to come up with possible experiments we could do to find out what affected the growth of a plant. Some were able to make suggestions, but quite a few were at a loss. They needed me to tell them exactly what I wanted. They were OK at answering simple questions, but when I said, "Come up with your own question to investigate," they looked at me as if I had asked them to fly. I think this confusion occurred because they had not experienced this sort of challenge before. They are accustomed to scripted curriculum, worksheets, and answering questions based on readings.

We are also experiencing a significant increase in the dropout rate -- more than 50 percent in some areas, especially among the students most targeted by scripted curriculum and test preparation: African American and Latino students in impoverished communities. Dropping out might be the ultimate failure of self-regulation, the ultimate alienation from school and education as a whole.

I hope we are able to delve into the dropout rate more deeply to find out the reasons for it. My fear is that our emphasis on test preparation has debased our whole educational enterprise. I have experienced this outcome firsthand when students challenge a teacher on why they should learn something. The standard response has become, "Because it is on the test." This is circular reasoning, and students know it. We have moved away from the real reasons to learn, which are that learning satisfies our curiosity and allows us to do worthwhile and creative things.

Please share your thoughts, and read part two of this entry.

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Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Abigail's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The dependence on standardized testing is clearly not effective. The reason for its predominance in our progressive educational world is baffling.

I do believe that many students see a number on a test or even fear taking the test at the outset and this is what creates the cans and the cannots and those who can survive the school system and those who can not.

But, I do not believe that all play in which children engage must be controlled by an adult. What happened to modeling so that students/children can be productive on their own? From where will our children/students learn independence and the skills they need for individual successes? Would we not be hand-holding, albeit on a difefrent level, if we did not let our students develop and explore options on their own, without the interference of those 'who know better'?

I also have students who need to be spoon-fed information. But, might that result from not teaching effective cognitive strategies from which students can develop theories and ideas? It might not have anything to do with scripted vs. free play.

There is a time for scripted play and there is a time for free play and I believe that there is a place and a need for both.

Gail Ritchie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The disappearance of play in the primary years has long been a topic of great concern to knowledgeable early childhood educators. Way back in 1998, Sandra Stone published an article entitled "Wanted: Advocates for Play," in which she provided educators with arguments in favor of the purpose and value of play for cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. And, as upset as I am about the lack of meaningful, enjoyable, playful learning experiences in the era of over-accountability, that's not even the worst part of the problem. If we deprive children of what should be a natural part of their development, I fear we are creating a nation of "just tell me what to do" future adults. Who will lead then? Who will be the thinkers, the creators?

Nancy Olson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a long time educator and kindergarten teacher of many years I am saddened by the state of the curriculum shoved at our four and five year olds whether they are ready or not. I see children who enter kindergarten reading and others who are just starting to understand that letters have sounds connected to them mid-year. They beat to their own drum whether we like it or not. "Ready or not here comes the test" is a game that frustrates them and causes them to want to give up. The process and flow that each child takes to reach fluent reading and writing is so unique that it takes a master teacher with years of experience to successfully use this locked- step curriculum designed for the students that learn the same way, auditorily. The kinesthetic and visual learners who benefit from the many forms of language learning that to the untrained eye looked like "pure play" are definitely "left behind". I hear children daily ask for more opportunities for hands-on learning, experiences they can manipulate, singing, dramatic play and creative problem solving. They do know best. All we have to do is listen and follow what we know to be best teaching practices. They are depending on us.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Isn't it sad that education policy makers seem convinced that the original thoughts of children, interactions of children with other children, and the development of activities that stimulate and entertain are of little to no value to children? It goes back to something I heard a few months ago--at a distance children may appear to be a problem to be fixed rather individuals to be developed. Teachers know better.

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