In a cozy little nook lined with pillows, behind a makeshift stage that welcomes onlookers to the “puppet show,” four kindergartners are putting their own twist on a recent lesson.
Equipped with hand puppets and language borrowed from their teachers (“Hands up, voices quiet,” kindergartner Isabella Cortez-Jimenez instructs her classmates), the children have chosen to use their free time in school to ... play more school.
At Liberty Elementary, and other Omaha schools, kindergartners like Isabella, Alivia Rafiner, Ahmad Rab and Jordyn Davis typically get an hour each day to play school, or get their hands dirty in a tub of green sand, or pretend to run a restaurant that serves plastic roast chickens.
It’s part of a movement in Omaha Public Schools led by kindergarten teachers like Luisa Palomo who contend that play is a powerful teaching tool. And it shows the pendulum swinging back to kindergarten classrooms of old that devoted plenty of time to both finger painting and learning shapes.
As the group of children assigns roles — two will be teachers, two will be students — dual-language kindergarten teacher Emma Dobson drops by to observe and interject with a few prompts and questions in Spanish. But she largely leaves them be to flex their imagination.
With the help of a tiger hand puppet named Mr. Francos, Jordyn embarks on his lesson. What happens when you get mad? He asks Ahmad. What if your brother takes one of your toys?
“I feel really, really mad and get frustrated and that means I take belly breaths and I do them 100 times,” Ahmad answers.
Dobson realizes they’re parroting a recent lesson delivered by a school counselor, but breaking it down into familiar scenarios and using kid-friendly language.
The driving forces behind an OPS initiative called Transforming Kindergarten acknowledge that, yes, kids need to learn their numbers and letters. But exploring the world through purposeful play — while also learning how to share, negotiate and socialize with classmates — is just as important as worksheets and flashcards.
“It’s not as easy as just putting toys out for them to play,” Dobson said. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it.”
Other districts have been taking steps to embrace play, too, although not necessarily to the extent of OPS. Some budget time for “brain breaks” so kids can get their wiggles out between lessons, or introduce new vocabulary to preschoolers as they play with Legos.
Palomo and Dobson are dual-language co-teachers. Two teams of students spend half the day learning English, half the day learning Spanish.
After lunch, their students get a full hour of play, exploring their choice of different stations that have been set up across the classrooms. In Palomo’s room, there’s an easel where kids can paint, tablets where they can play a math game and a cash register with a working calculator and play money.
“Can I get one chicken nugget?” Juan Genchi Garcia asks Temperance Saldierna, who’s at the register. She practices “scanning” a plastic corn cob and green pepper.
Above a play kitchen set with pots and pans, Dobson displays a food pyramid poster, with nutritional terms in Spanish, to hark back to a recent lesson on healthy eating.
Many of the stations incorporate a math or reading element, Dobson said. After playtime, one little boy shared with the class the miniature book he had created during the hour, listing the things, like candy, that he liked.
The Transforming Kindergarten project began in 2013, as teachers were clamoring for more joy — and autonomy — in their classrooms, Palomo said. Parents, too, in OPS and other schools, have lobbied for more recess time.
“There was just a lot of pressure to prepare for first grade, prepare for second grade,” she said.
Deborah Wisneski, an early childhood education professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said more schools are trying to restore balance in the classroom — with the understanding that play and academics are not mutually exclusive.
As more schools switched to full-day kindergarten in the 1990s and 2000s and faced stricter accountability measures under No Child Left Behind, some teachers felt constrained to stick to more rigid lesson plans. For kids growing up in poverty, who may arrive in pre-K or kindergarten less prepared than their middle-class peers, there may be even more impetus to get them caught up.
“Generally if we see children having deficits in their learning early on, we assume the first thing we need to do is become very restrictive in our teaching,” Wisneski said. “We kind of deny them the opportunity to use their own brains. But using play is probably the most rigorous and academic thing you can do.”
UNO even has a new model play classroom for education majors and teachers in the metro area.
Giving students space to explore their environment and guide their own learning is a core concept in educational philosophies like the Reggio Emilia approach, which originated in Italy, and the Montessori method. Students in Finland — celebrated for its high performance on international tests — tend to start formal schooling later, and early childhood education revolves around free play.
“Play is serious work. There’s research behind it,” said Donna Dobson, OPS’s director of elementary instruction.
And kindergarten teachers are still expected to cram in plenty of core concepts, too. State standards expect kindergartners to read simple words and identify concepts like the setting of a story. They should be able to count to 100 and tell the difference between a triangle and a hexagon.
Outside OPS, Ralston has been working with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute to beef up developmentally appropriate play and expand language acquisition among preschoolers.
“If a student is playing in the blocks and they’re building a barn ... you’re talking about it and extending their vocabulary using what they’re interested in,” said Cecilia Wilken, Ralston’s director of elementary education. “The teacher can then talk about different animals or the height of it.”
In Millard, elementary classrooms involve opportunities for play, and kids get “brain breaks” to break up sedentary lessons.
OPS kindergarten teachers are encouraged to devote 60 minutes each day to play, in addition to recess. Teachers and paraprofessionals can spend half that time pulling kids who need extra help into small groups and the other half observing and questioning kids at play.
A guidebook developed for teachers lays out what different play stations could look like — a discovery center could include pine cones and plastic dinosaurs and excavation tools. Teachers could introduce kids to new vocabulary words, such as pebbles or artifacts.
A classroom set up to stimulate play should have areas that appeal to different interests and learning styles, Wisneski said. Teachers should follow the lead of their students and make connections between classroom play and real life; if a girl is building with blocks, a teacher could prompt a conversation about the Woodmen Tower or other buildings she sees on her way to school. Laying that groundwork early can pave the way much later for more intensive lessons on physics or architecture.
Palomo said teachers, principals and families are all-in on adding more play.
“No principal has ever said ‘Why are you wasting time?’ ” she said. “I’ve never had a family say ‘Why are you letting them play?’ I think, as an adult, I’d hate to be told you can’t laugh, can’t smile, can’t make mistakes. The kids are so happy.”
Correction: The Buffett Early Childhood Institute was misidentified in a previous version of this story.