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Inside the effort to bring 'guided play' to more NH kindergarten classrooms

Two students stand around a colorful set of blocks. One student holds a piece that could be attached to the main structure.
Courtesy
/
Danielle Dugas
Since a law passed in 2018 requiring New Hampshire schools to use play-based learning in kindergarten, many districts have struggled to define and implement the practice. An initiative from the University of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the New Hampshire Department of Education aims to help fill in those gaps.

A group of kindergarten teachers in Manchester are teaming up with early childhood education specialists from the University of New Hampshire to bring more play into their classrooms.

The initiative is part of a collaboration between UNH, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the New Hampshire Department of Education to help teachers follow a 2018 law requiring “play-based learning” in kindergarten classes.

“You're using what science tells us is how people learn best, which is through active, playful learning for young children,” said Kimberly Nesbitt, Associate Professor at UNH’s

Department of Human Development and Family Studies, who is helping to oversee the initiative.

Teachers involved in the training said it’s helped them better assess students’ academic progress and social skills.

“At first I felt guilty sitting down and coloring with some of my students because I felt like I should be doing more important ‘teacher things,’” said Danielle Dugas, a kindergarten teacher at Manchester’s Highland-Goffe’s Falls. “Then as the weeks went on, I realized I was doing the important teacher things: I was sitting down and getting to know my students.”

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are currently compiling data on how — and how many — New Hampshire schools are incorporating guided play into kindergartens.
Courtesy
/
Danielle Dugas
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are currently compiling data on how — and how many — New Hampshire schools are incorporating guided play into kindergartens.

Lisa DeLacey, Manchester’s elementary curriculum director, said she turned to UNH researchers because she wanted to figure out how to incorporate play into their new literacy curriculum.

She said one of the biggest challenges in meeting the state’s mandate for play-based kindergarten is to figure out how to make room for it amidst an already packed class schedule.

“If you have an hour of math and you have lunch and recess and art, music, and PE, there really isn't a lot of time, “ she said.

Since the law passed in 2018, many districts have struggled to define and implement play-based learning. Some schools have claimed to meet the mandate with recess or a half-hour of playtime at the end of the day, said Kimberly Nesbitt. Others trained their teachers in the method but then lost momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shauna Webber, a kindergarten teacher at Smyth Road Elementary School in Manchester, said that despite her school’s support for play-based learning this year, implementation of the method is inconsistent across the state.

“Not only is it not consistently happening,” she said. “It’s discouraged in some schools.”

“At first I felt guilty sitting down and coloring with some of my students because I felt like I should be doing more important ‘teacher things,’” said Danielle Dugas, a kindergarten teacher at Manchester’s Highland-Goffe’s Falls. “Then as the weeks went on, I realized I was doing the important teacher things: I was sitting down and getting to know my students.”
Courtesy
/
Danielle Dugas
“At first I felt guilty sitting down and coloring with some of my students because I felt like I should be doing more important ‘teacher things,’” said Danielle Dugas, a kindergarten teacher at Manchester’s Highland-Goffe’s Falls. “Then as the weeks went on, I realized I was doing the important teacher things: I was sitting down and getting to know my students.”

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are currently compiling data on how — and how many — New Hampshire schools are incorporating guided play into kindergartens. So far, UNH has trained teachers in about 64 districts on this new method.

Karen DuBois-Garofalo, one of the “play coaches” from UNH, said teachers learn to identify specific learning goals and then facilitate active play with students – building forts, using post-it notes to measure people's heights, or doing a scavenger hunt to learn new words.

Afterwards, teachers facilitate a post-play reflection about what worked and how the play connected to what students are learning in class.

“What we're seeing repeatedly in classrooms is that children are using vocabulary from that knowledge unit within their play,” DuBois-Garofalo said. “Teachers are able to respond in a back and forth conversation to, to have an understanding of: are our children using that in the correct context? Do they have an understanding of that language?”

Allison Beach, a kindergarten teacher at Highland-Goffe’s Falls Elementary School in Manchester, said she does her “most authentic” assessments of students’ language and math skills during guided play. One student who had not been able to count past 39 in a recent test managed to count to 80 using blocks during play time, she said.

Schools employing the play-based method hope it could help address behavior issues that have worsened since the height of COVID pandemic. Teachers attribute some of these to lapses in daycare and socialization that typically prepare young children for kindergarten. Guided learning, they say, could help build some of the communication and problem solving skills many young students lack.

That’s one of the goals shaping a nationwide initiative on guided play that began last year. Funded by the Lego Foundation, researchers at UNH and several other universities are working with school districts in Virginia, California, Illinois, and Texas to train teachers in the guided play model.

Nesbitt said that some of what UNH researchers learned here is serving as a template for teacher trainings elsewhere.

“We were the kind of the fire that lit this focus on a larger scale,” Nesbitt said.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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