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Prioritising play for kindy kids improves academics and reduces teacher burnout

Emphasising more play, hands-on learning, and students helping one another in kindergarten improves academic outcomes, self-control and attention regulation, according to new research.

A study published in the journal PLoS One found that this approach to kindergarten curriculum also enhanced children’s joy in learning and teachers’ enjoyment of teaching, and reduced bullying, peer ostracism and teacher burnout.

“Before children have the ability to sit for long periods absorbing information the way it is traditionally presented in school through lectures, they need to be allowed to be active and encouraged to learn by doing,” said Dr Adele Diamond, the study’s lead author, a professor in the University of British Columbia Department of Psychiatry and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

“Indeed, people of all ages learn better by doing than by being told.”

Dr Diamond and her colleagues analysed the effectiveness of a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which was introduced to willing kindergarten teachers and 351 children with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in 18 public schools across the school districts of Vancouver and Surrey in Canada.

The program, the researchers noted in a statement, emphasises the role of social dramatic play in building executive functions – which includes skills such as self-control and selective attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning and planning.

“Executive functioning skills are necessary for learning and are often more strongly associated with school readiness than intelligence quotient,” said Dr Diamond.

“This trial is the first to show benefits of a curriculum emphasizing social play to executive functioning in a real-world setting.”

The study demonstrates for the first time, Dr Diamond posited, that Tools also dramatically improves writing (exceeding the top level on the provincial assessment scale), improves executive functions in the real world, and has a host of social and emotional benefits not previously documented.

Teachers also reported more helping behavior and greater sense of community in Tools classes: cliques developed in most control classes, but in few Tools classes. Late in the school year, Tools teachers reported still feeling energised and excited about teaching, while control teachers were exhausted.

“I have enjoyed seeing the enormous progress my students have made in writing and reading. I have never had so many students writing two or three sentences by the end of kindergarten,” said Susan Kochan, a Tools teacher in Vancouver.

“I have also enjoyed seeing the students get so excited about coming to school and learning. They loved all the activities we did so much that many students didn’t want to miss school, even if they were sick.”