All work and no play: New study finds decline in free time for kindergartners

All work and no play: New study finds decline in free time for kindergartners


The Disappearance of Child-Directed Activities and Teachers’ Autonomy From Massachusetts’ Kindergartens

The Disappearance of Child-Directed Activities and Teachers’ Autonomy From Massachusetts’ Kindergartens, a new study commissioned by the nonprofit Defending the Early Years, finds there has been a sharp reduction in recess and other child-directed activities in Massachusetts kindergartens.

Research shows that students need frequent breaks and the ability to learn through directing their own activities. The MTA is a strong supporter of a measure to mandate at least 20 minutes a day of recess a day in grades K-5, the bare minimum needed to promote healthy development.

The author of the study is MTA member R. Clarke Fowler, a professor of childhood education at Salem State University. He based his conclusions on a survey of 189 kindergarten teachers in some of the wealthiest and poorest school districts in Massachusetts.

Fowler found that most schools have reduced the amount of time for child-directed activities such as free play, rest, recess, snack and lunch. However, schools serving large numbers of students from low-income areas typically provide even less time for those activities than do those serving large percentages of students from wealthier areas.

Teachers surveyed also reported that they have less control over their curriculum than in the past, a byproduct of the standards and testing movement that has been driving education in recent years. More than half of the schools represented in this study have adopted scripted curricula in mathematics, writing and phonics.

The study compared time for child-directed activities in Massachusetts with three high-performing Canadian provinces that have published sample kindergarten schedules. The Canadian recommendations call for much more recess and play than in Massachusetts.

Here are some key findings from the study.

Schools have reduced the time kindergartners have for child-directed activities

  • In recent years, 65 percent of schools represented in the current study have reduced the amount of time scheduled for child-directed activities such as rest, recess, free play, snack and lunch.

Children in high-socioeconomic-status schools have more time for child-directed activities

  • Kindergartners in wealthier schools in Massachusetts have nearly 50 percent more time for play and recess than those in poorer schools (20 minutes more daily, or 1.6 hours more weekly).
  • Kindergartners in high socioeconomic-status schools in Massachusetts have nearly 40 percent more time for child-directed activities (30 minutes more daily, or 2.5 hours more weekly).
  • Kindergartens in low socioeconomic-status schools are more likely than wealthier kindergartens to have transformed unstructured, child-directed activities into structured, adult-directed activities by adopting a working snack (23 percent versus 3 percent), an adult-guided recess (6 percent versus 3 percent), and as an occasional form of punishment, a silent lunch (10 percent versus 0 percent).

Kindergartners in Massachusetts get much less time for free play and recess than three provinces recommend for kindergartners in Canada

  • Kindergartens in high- and low-socioeconomic-status schools in Massachusetts schedule only 5.2 and 3.5 hours a week respectively for free play and recess. By contrast, three provinces in Canada, a high-performing country on international tests, recommend that children have 8.3 hours a week on average for free play and recess.

The scheduling of child-directed activities in some low-socioeconomic-status kindergartens is Dickensian

  • Seventy-one percent of kindergarten classrooms in low-socioeconomic-status schools and 23 percent in high-income districts get less time for child-directed activities than the amount of downtime researchers recommend for either adults or elementary students (i.e., 15 minutes per hour).
  • Hundreds of kindergartners in 16 different schools in nine low-socioeconomic-status districts have less time for child-directed activities in their school day (seven minutes per hour or less) than most school custodians have for contractually scheduled breaks in their workday.
  • Kindergartners in two low-socioeconomic-status schools in Massachusetts do not have a single minute for child-directed activities on days when silent lunch is implemented.

Schools have reduced kindergarten teachers’ control over curriculum

  • More than half of the schools represented in this study have adopted scripted curricula in mathematics, writing and phonics.
  • More than 60 percent of survey participants have little or no freedom to adapt districted-mandated scripted curricula to the needs of their kindergartners.

Most elementary principals are inexperienced in early childhood education

  • Less than 20 percent of survey participants’ principals hold an early childhood education PreK-2 credential.

Fowler concludes, “In far too many public school kindergartens in Massachusetts, children are experiencing educational conditions that prepare them, not for a career in the creative economy, but rather for settings where creativity, personal agency, and a sense of purpose are not necessary. Advocacy is required at both the state and local level to persuade or, if necessary, compel schools to adopt practices that address the needs of children rather than the needs of child-blind administrators in their pursuit of higher test scores.”