It was a willful kindergarten pupil who gave Steve Oates a crash course in how to lead a school.
“A kindergartner came into my office, and he wouldn’t sit down, so I said, ‘You will sit down,’ ” recalls Oates, now the assistant superintendent for elementary administration in North Carolina’s Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district. “He took his arm and cleared everything off my desk.”
On that day in 1994, Oates, a rookie principal, could have shouted or kicked the boy out of school. But instead of deciding the child was bad or a lost cause, Oates thought, “OK, I have to have a different approach.”
Now 61, Oates continues to draw on lessons from that moment—the importance of relationships built on trust and mutual respect, listening to complaints, asking questions, trusting colleagues, showing up in classrooms, and approaching angry little boys gently. He has had to tap into all those tenets in the past five years as he’s led his 54,000-student district’s initiative to bring play back to kindergarten classrooms.
The effort to make the district’s early-learning environments more engaging for children and hence, more effective for their learning, has been at the heart of Oates’ work overseeing 45 elementary schools and their principals. And the district’s pursuit of more play-based learning has taken place at a time when many districts and early-childhood centers have shifted to more structured, academic environments.
A Steady Hand
Despite his heavy load of responsibilities, Oates logs lots of hours in the schools he oversees, meeting with principals and teachers and checking in personally to ensure that the blocks and dress-up clothes in kindergarten classrooms are in heavy use.
“If I walk into 10 kinder[garten] classrooms, and at least seven or eight of them [are focused on play], I could say, ‘We’re on the right track,’ ” Oates says of where he hopes to bring his district’s classrooms.
Existing research on early learning points to the conclusion that young children learn more, and retain far more, when they are physically moving and engaging in activities ranging from pretending to run a store to figuring out that using bigger blocks at the base of a tower works best for building.
“Play builds the foundation that children need for their cognitive development, self-control, ability to pay attention, problem-solve, and think critically,” says Geoffrey Nagle, the president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for early educators.
Making a tower of blocks with another child, for instance, can hold lessons about geometry, physics, and cooperation all in one. Plus, the fine-motor control developed while smooshing Play-Doh at the art table, buttoning a frock coat during dress-up time, or snapping together Lego bricks to build a house feeds directly into the delicate academic task of holding a pencil in later years, according to Susan Friedman, the senior director of content strategy at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Studies have also found that learning by play keeps children engaged and helps them retain new information longer.
Oates, as a longtime teacher of 1st graders, is well-versed in that research as well as its in-classroom applications, and that allows him a valuable perspective as he tries to persuade teachers and principals to follow his lead in making big changes.
“It’s really not just about play,” Oates says. “It’s about designing highly engaging learning environments for children that are guided by developmentally appropriate instruction.”
Making Schools Ready for Children
The state of North Carolina recognized the need to improve its kindergarten classrooms and make them interactive places for children to arrive on their first day of school. In 2007, the state board of education endorsed an initiative known as Ready Schools that had at its center the idea that schools should be made ready for children, rather than insisting children be ready for school.
That meant creating welcoming environments, especially in the early years. Competitive grants were offered to districts that wanted to pursue such changes.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County applied for one of the grants but did not win, says Sharon Ritchie, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was involved in reviewing the applications. Despite the loss, Winston-Salem officials pushed ahead with their improvement plan, “which I completely respect them for,” says Ritchie, who has worked with many districts to create high-quality early-learning environments.
Ritchie says Winston-Salem was among a handful of districts she knows of that have pursued the work so diligently.
First, she says, there was a small collection of educators and community members, and especially one hardworking kindergarten teacher, who were pulling for the change. Then the district hired Oates.
“When districts are behind something, then that’s when real change happens,” Ritchie says. “And they’re not giving up. Steve is just dedicated to making this happen.”
Oates has helped the district pursue outside funding for teacher training and materials from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a local foundation. He’s also attended meetings with principals and teachers, worked to bring experts like Ritchie in to conduct trainings, and talked with community members about the importance of making these changes.
“He has no doubt received some pushback for it, and he has stayed the course,” Ritchie says.
Play vs. Worksheets?
For Oates, it all comes back to that moment when you can see a child has learned something new.
From his time as a teenager at the YMCA volunteering to work with younger children, Oates knew he wanted to be involved with helping children learn. He’s seen engaging environments and hands-on activities work for so many children, that for him, there is no conflict between the ideas of play and learning.
“The classrooms I’m talking about are very rigorous classrooms,” Oates says. Content does not need to be sacrificed, he says, but rather worked into the day in an organic way that allows children to explore new concepts in an engaging way.
So far, there are no concrete district data to show whether the more play-based kindergarten program is improving academic achievement as measured by standardized state tests. The shift has been gradual, so that only a few students old enough to have been tested actually experienced a significantly different kindergarten environment. But those students are showing a strong array of traits that contribute to long-term academic success, Oates says.
“What we know is that these children have better self-regulation and executive function and are able to control impulse behavior, sustain focus and have higher social and emotional development,” he says.
Even now, Oates thinks there are still many classrooms that need to include a lot more play. But adding play back into kindergarten after years of focusing on test scores is not always easy for teachers and principals, says Eva Phillips, the district’s Ready Schools coordinator, who has helped Oates spearhead the effort.
“It’s hard to think about how to bring playful experiences back to kindergarten when it’s been more of a worksheet kind of time,” Phillips says. “So it’s, ‘What’s it going to do to my test scores?’ ”
Phillips estimates that a third of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County principals are thoroughly excited by the push for play in kindergarten. Another third, she says, would like to make the changes but don’t know where to start. Yet another third are resistant.
Donna Cannon, the principal at Diggs-Latham Elementary School, is squarely in the group of supporters. Cannon taught various elementary grades for 22 years, including some as a prekindergarten teacher, before becoming a principal.
“[Oates] is the first assistant superintendent that’s actually taught 1st grade, that’s taught elementary school,” Cannon says. “He was instrumental in getting principals in our district to understand what’s going on developmentally in pre-K and kindergarten.”
It’s really not just about play. It’s about designing highly engaging learning environments for children that are guided by developmentally appropriate instruction.
Principal Trish Spencer at Union Cross Elementary is also pleased to see her school’s youngest learners putting down their pencils and picking up their play frying pans. A previous superintendent had insisted on the removal of play kitchens in the kindergarten classrooms at Union Cross, Spencer says.
“One of the first things [Oates] said was, ‘Y’all get those kitchens back in there!’ ” Spencer recalls with a laugh.
While schools across the country are talking about making this shift back to kindergarten “the way it used to be,” it’s still rare for a whole district to focus so much energy on actually making such a change, says Ritchie.
In fact, many early-education experts are concerned that the focus on academics in the early years remains too intense. The growth in public-school-based preschool programs has only exacerbated that concern.
“Right now, we, the adults, are too focused on early-literacy instruction and measuring outcomes with test scores, all at the expense of play,” says Nagle of the Erikson Institute.
Oates thinks that play needs to be extended into higher grades, as well.
“We have to build these environments at least through 3rd grade,” he says. “We’ve known this for so long.”
Despite his confidence that he knows play-based classrooms are the right way forward for early education in his district, Oates says he works hard to stick to the lesson he learned in his first month as a principal. He doesn’t walk into a school and start telling people what to do; he asks questions first, builds relationships.
“He’s not just all sugar and spice,” Spencer says. “He can get serious. But it’s more of a problem-solving mode. It’s not, ‘You need to do this.’ It’s more, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”