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Kindergarten teachers are leading movement in OPS utilizing play as a teaching tool

December 13, 2017
Erin Duffy
Omaha World Herald

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.