At One School, a Push for More Play Time
By Sharon Otterman
Some kindergarten parents at Public School 101, a graceful brick castle in Forest Hills, Queens, wanted more free play time for their children; so they decided to do something about it.
Gone were the play kitchens, sand and water tables, and dress-up areas; half-days were now full days. Instead, there were whiteboards, and the kindergartners, in classes of up to 27, practiced reading and math on work sheets on desks at P.S. 101, also known as the School in the Gardens.
Play came in the form of “choice time,” a roughly 30-minute afternoon period during which each child chose what blocks or toys in the classroom to work with, and at recess, which was often truncated by the time it took for every child to calm down and form an orderly line back to class.
About a month ago, about half of the kindergarten parents signed a letter to the principal, Valerie Capitulo-Saide, asking for more unstructured time in the school day, an extra recess period and better procedures in recess. Ms. Capitulo-Saide gave them one extra gym period a week and no longer required students to form perfect lines at recess, one parent said.
P.S. 101 “is a high performing school,” Ms. Capitulo-Saide said in an e-mail. “Our collaborative decision-making process includes input from parents, teachers and administrators. As a result of our collaboration, we have added 30 minutes of additional physical education instruction per week for kindergarten students while maintaining strong instruction.”
Time and space for imaginative play in city schools seem to be shrinking as the academic emphasis on reading and math grows, said Clara Hemphill, who researches the city’s schools. “Across the city, we’ve seen dress-up areas taken away and replaced with computer desks,” Ms. Hemphill said. That has brought a quiet backlash from some parents.
Some parents at P.S. 101 said they wanted to see a greater emphasis on play on days when children cannot go outside; now, they are sometimes plopped down to watch television cartoons. “We wanted something like board games or Simon Says, but I think the staffing was too much to organize,” Donna Chin, a kindergarten parent, said.
The school also organized an effort to win money from an online competition to fix up a disused outdoor area into a garden it is calling a “kinder” (rhymes with minder) garden. The school is asking for $25,000; the deadline to vote is Jan. 31. The goal is to use the garden as an alternative learning site that creates an enriching outdoor learning environment instead of an all-day confined classroom model.
Early childhood homework is another issue. Each Monday, the kindergartners get a packet of worksheets they are supposed to complete by Friday. There are generally 10 to 12 reading, writing and math worksheets each week. Parents are also asked to read to their children.
Victoria Zunitch, who recently withdrew her daughter from P.S. 101 to send her to a private school, said kindergarten homework ended up being parent homework because the children had trouble working independently.
The School in the Gardens has a rigorous academic curriculum, and it is the sort of place where homework assignments by third grade can stretch to an hour.
About half of the parents support the idea of kindergarten homework, and about half do not, said one parent, Norberto Maio. Mr. Maio said his son, Francisco, generally came home tired, making homework difficult.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a 5-year-old,” Mr. Maio said. “At least not on a regular basis. They do have, like, 20 more years to do homework.”
Ms. Chin, the mother of 5-year-old Kristin, had no complaints about the homework. “It’s manageable,” she said. “They have to take the standardized tests soon.”
Asma Khan, another parent at P.S. 101, said she saw both positives and negatives to a kindergarten focused on academics, especially when a talented teacher is getting results. Her daughter, Zainab, 4, has already learned how to read and would sit around writing all day if she could, Ms. Khan said.
Zainab, for her part, said she liked school just as it was: no more play needed.
And homework? No problem.
“I love homework,” she said. “I write my numbers and my A B C’s.”
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