U-46 making kindergarten more fun, less stressful
Blocks, jigsaw puzzles, a kitchenette, a cash register and many more toys now fill kindergarten classrooms in Elgin Area School District U-46 -- accenting the role of play-based learning as full-day kindergarten was launched districtwide last week.
"It's so cool," Lina Cannone, 5, exclaimed while playing with a sandbox on her first day of kindergarten at Centennial Elementary School in Bartlett.
Roughly 2,500 kindergartners at 40 elementary schools in the state's second-largest school district are experiencing learning through play for the first time inside the classroom.
It's a game-changer, said Jan Wilcox, who teaches kindergarten at Centennial and has seen and implemented many teaching methods during her 28 years in education.
"This has been a long time coming," Wilcox said. "I'm absolutely thrilled. What we're expected to do in a half day is almost impossible."
In half-day kindergarten, the focus was more on teaching mathematics and literacy. Now, the district has a new science curriculum for kindergartners.
"It really focuses on investigation, problem-solving, and a lot of hands-on exploration that the kids can do," Wilcox said. "There's a lot of research now showing play really helps the students develop their executive functioning. The simplistic explanation is just being able to have a goal and maintain your attention to achieve that goal."
A simple game of role-playing, such as pretending to be "Mommy" or a chef, can help children develop self-regulation and focus better, she said.
"A lot of kids don't participate in that at home anymore or in the neighborhood like we did when we were younger," Wilcox said. "With working parents and day care, it's a little bit different now."
Wilcox said when she first started teaching preschool in the early 1980s, there was more playtime in classrooms with some introduction of letters, numbers and colors. Slowly, the focus shifted to mandated assessments and curriculum in kindergarten. But the pendulum is swinging back, she said.
"It became more about the academics. There are a lot of benchmarks," Wilcox said. "Now, we're trying to balance that out a little more ... being in school and having the resources and props they need to carry out the play, so that it doesn't stress the kids out and it doesn't stress the teachers out. It's not a time when they should be stressed. We just want a more relaxed atmosphere."
More play, less stress
As part of the now six-hour kindergarten school day -- double the class time in half-day kindergarten -- students get to play outside, have an hour for lunch and recess, participate in storytime and have more play-based lessons indoors. There are blocks of time during which teachers concentrate on core content areas, such as literacy, language and math.
"Within those time frames children are going to actively engage with materials, exploration, teacher-directed instruction," said Peggy Ondera, U-46 director of early learners initiatives. "We're encouraging teachers to take more of those movement breaks, and get them outside for additional recess, if children seem to be needing it."
The structure offers students plenty of time to interact with each other and naturally acquire social and emotional skills, and it allows teachers more time for individualized attention.
"It really provides the optimum type of classroom experience for kids," Ondera said. "We know that five-and-six-year-olds experience the world differently. They use their senses more. They construct their own knowledge."
Through play-based learning, students are actively engaged in the world around them.
"They actually have a voice and choice in the learning process," said Colleen Pecucci, full-day kindergarten teacher at Oakhill Elementary School in Streamwood.
Before the districtwide rollout, Pecucci was among a few teachers working in limited full-day kindergarten classrooms at various schools for 11 years.
"We saw great success with our students, not only with their self-confidence but with their academic growth and progress," she said. "We provide them with hands-on learning centers ... they don't have opportunities to be bored. They are constantly moving, have choice in their learning. Teachers and facilitators are guides for them. Kindergarten is a child's first learning experience. I know how important it is for us to do it well and to make sure that they enjoy being there on a daily basis."
This year, less than 2 percent of U-46 families have opted to place their children in half-day kindergarten, which costs $48 yearly for enrollment. The enrollment fee for full-day kindergarten is $96 yearly.
Partly to accommodate full-day kindergarten, 26 classrooms were added -- a $9.3 million cost -- at Coleman, Highland and Laurel Hill elementary schools. Coleman and Highland, both in Elgin, got 10 more classrooms each, and Laurel Hill in Hanover Park got six more classrooms. The district also hired 46 new kindergarten teachers -- including internal candidates -- for a total of 120 kindergarten teachers districtwide who received eight days of training this summer on the new play-based model, new science curriculum, math, literacy, and social-emotional development. Parents also might need some guidance on how to handle their more exhausted kindergartners after a longer school day. Schools will have curriculum nights, and some tips on the transition to full-day kindergarten are available on the district's website, u-46.org.
"This is going to be a new paradigm for the parents, and so we are going to help them through this too," Wilcox said. "Some parents are afraid their kids will fall behind. I just want to allay those fears ... help them understand how play really helps (students) develop as a learner and be successful academically."