Training teachers to promote structured play among kindergarteners yields improved reading, vocabulary and maths scores that persist into first grade, according to a new study.
The technique, called "Tools of the Mind", seemed to be particularly effective in high-poverty schools, the authors write.
"The active ingredient is children are taking responsibility for their own learning," said Clancy Blair of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, who led the study.
"The key aspect is children planning what they're going to do and making a plan for it and executing that plan," Blair said. "They're practicing all the cognitive skills that are important for learning."
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For the two-year study, researchers divided 79 kindergarten classrooms with a total of 759 children into two groups. Forty-two classrooms were directed to incorporate the Tools of the Mind programme, and 37 continued with their standard teaching practices.
Researchers assessed students' attention, speed of processing and other measures of academic ability twice a year, as well as testing their saliva samples for levels of stress hormones.
Improve thinking skills
In the Tools of the Mind programme, teachers attended several professional development workshops each year and had a Tools coach who periodically visited classrooms with the Tools trainer.
The programme is meant to improve kids' control over their ability to avoid distractions, focus their attention, remember important details and regulate impulsive behaviour.
Teachers organise "shared cooperative activities" designed to promote social-emotional development and improve thinking skills. They combine reading, mathematics and science activities with child-directed activities and structured sociodramatic play.
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Kids in the Tools group showed improvements in reading, vocabulary and mathematics at the end of kindergarten that actually increased into the first grade, the researchers reported in the journal PLoS ONE.
"The thing that is most important for our results is we found the biggest effects in the highest poverty schools," Blair said. Kids from poorer families often enter kindergarten less prepared because they have been exposed to less language and fewer learning activities, he said.
Previous studies inconclusive
Tools kids also had slightly higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva samples when researchers tested them at 10:30 am during a school day. Although too much cortisol at all times is a bad thing, a slight increase during the day indicates that kids are more stimulated, the authors write.
"You want it when you need it and you want it to go away when you don't," Blair said.
Previous studies evaluating the effect of a pre-kindergarten version of the Tools of the Mind programme have been inconclusive, the authors write, and this is the first study of the technique in kindergarten.
The Tools program wouldn't be difficult to implement in kindergarten classrooms in the U.S., although it's not currently happening because of a "misguided emphasis" on academics and the belief that children need to sit at a desk and learn to read, Blair said.
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"There's a lot of debate about moving away from play," said Allyson P. Mackey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not part of the new study.
"We know that this is a good way for kids to learn, but there's a lot of pressure to teach kids pre-reading and pre-maths skills," Mackey told Reuters Health.
Free play for children might have very important academic implications, she said.
Parents could try to implement some of these play techniques at home, too, but peer interaction is an important aspect so it makes sense to focus on the classroom, Blair said.
"It's well within the budgets and the capabilities of every kindergarten classroom in the U.S.," he said. "Closing the achievement gap is right there, we know how to do it, and there's no excuse not to do it."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1v8ol8A PLOS ONE, online November 12, 2014.
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