As my daughter heads off to her first year of full-day schooling, I hear that kindergarten is the new first grade. Math is all about problem solving, and proficient reading and letter formation are important standards. As an educator, I believe the old school "three Rs" (reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic) are imperative at all levels, but I don’t want my little girl to miss out on what I believe is vital at every age – play.

Play isn’t always about running around in the yard or swinging on the playground. It’s not about screen time or organized sports. It’s about exploration and curiosity. It’s something that starts when our children are small. But when they start school, it seems to diminish.

As soon as kids start formalized day school, they are learning curriculum deemed to be important by the government, teachers and constituents. And it is important. I want my daughter to have the skills to read and write. She should learn her basic skills and eventually higher level math reasoning to enable her to balance a checkbook, do her taxes and keep a balanced household budget. She’ll use math, reading and writing in her career – whatever it may be. Learning about the history of our country and the world will make her not only an informed citizen, but someone who may be ready to make a change and a difference. Science teaches reasoning and helps with understanding this fascinating universe of which we are a part. Electives, such as music, art and foreign language, are also significant in her development as a learner.

As a teacher, I am constantly telling my students the "why" of what they are learning. But I am also reminding them that, sometimes, even when their teachers aren’t the ones asking, they need to keep questioning. They need to keep asking their own "why" questions.

Sometimes we spend so much time telling kids what they are going to learn, we forget they are inherently curious. An average 4-year-old asks 300 to 400 questions a day. Inquisitive by nature, they are constantly taking in the world, begging to understand all the little intricacies that make things the way they are. What happens to our older children to make them less curious? Certainly they still have questions about the way things are.

As a teacher and a parent, I have made a promise. Even as my daughter enters kindergarten and my stepson nears the end of his secondary school career, I keep encouraging them to ask questions. Chances are (especially with my eldest), there will be questions I am unequipped to answer.

I see this with my students who are delving into worlds of robotics and scientific discovery beyond my expectations. This is an opportunity for them to discover research resources and connect with reputable mentors in fields relevant to their interests and future careers. Instead of telling them to focus on their classwork, we set aside a time for learning and discovering those answers called "Genius Time." Students have the ability to work for a time period each day to research their own essential questions, whether those are driven by career interests or just plain curiosity. Overall, it’s time in their day to really, truly play and learn.

I believe every student – big or small, child or adult – should have moments of inquiry in their day. When I hear the 345th question from my toddler today, I won’t get irritated with her constant whys, but I will remind myself to keep reminding her to ask those questions through her kindergarten days and beyond.

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Jen Schneider is a middle school teacher and mom to two children.

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