The CCSS don’t say we should exclude the play

The first responses addressing concerns about CCSS in early childhood education are from Kathleen A. Paciga, Columbia College Chicago;  Jessica L. Hoffman, Winton Woods City School District; and William H. Teale, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Rigorous standards may lead to reduced play and rich activity in preschool and Kindergarten classrooms.

There is no reason on earth that more rigorous early literacy standards should lead to reduced play in preschool and kindergarten. But there has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of “play” time in early education contexts (e.g., Frost, 2012; Gray, 2011; Sofield, 2013). The CCSS make no specific mention of play, nor do they specify the methods through which kindergartners are to demonstrate meeting the standards, so why is there a flood of commentary from practitioners (e.g., Cox, n.d.; Holland, 2015), professional organizations and advocates (e.g., Carlsson-Paige, McLaughlin, & Almon, 2015; Nemeth, 2012; Paciga, Hoffman & Teale, 2011[1]), larger media hubs (e.g., Kenny, 2013), and parents, too, about the role of play (and the lack of it) in early education since the release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010?

Project set 5

We suspect it is a combination of several influences, two of which are especially pertinent to our comments here. One relates to the points we made about “drill and kill” instruction. The specificity and ramped-up expectations of the CCSS have prompted many administrators to issue mandates to spend X number of minutes teaching Y. The misconception here lies in what constitutes teaching in an early childhood classroom. The CCSS don’t really discuss play, one way or the other. But the experiences with language and literacy that young children need, and the freedom for discussion and exploration that play allows, are critically important. Dramatic play with embedded literacy props and language interactions; retelling stories through flannel boards and puppets; or, making characters from clay and discussing them; writing stories, lists, and letters; composing signs for structures created with blocks—these and other play-related activities offer so much more in the way of developmentally appropriate opportunities to teach the concepts and skills embodied in the CCSS.

The other—related—factor contributing to reduced play and rich activity is a topic that has been discussed in early childhood education for the past 30 years: the push down of the curriculum from the later primary grades into earlier education. Add to that the recent emphasis on Value-Added-Measures (VAM) for teacher evaluation and, voila, we find in K and pre-K increased emphasis on narrowly focused skills such as phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, phonics, and sight word recognition that are susceptible to being measured by standardized assessments. The trouble is that these skills can be taught without embedding them in a rich play context, and too often administrators are more worried about scores to prove value added, than about ensuring that children have deep understanding of both foundational and higher level understandings in early literacy.

As Pondiscio (2015) points out, “No one wants to see academic pressure bearing down on kindergarteners. That would only lead to uninterested children and with dim reading prospects. But focusing on language in kindergarten does not entail diminished play-based learning.” As early childhood professionals, we need to emphasize that our objection is to the administrative recommendations for how we prepare children for mandated assessments, rather than (1) including reading, writing, and language-based experiences in our school day, or (2) on the absence of play-based literacy learning…because the CCSS don’t say we should exclude the play.


[1] Paciga, K.A., Hoffman, J.L. & Teale, W.H. (2011). The National Early Literacy Panel Report and classroom instruction: Green lights, caution lights, and red lights. Young Children, 66 (6), 50-57.











  1. For me as an industry watcher, I see that practitioners look for easy answers to complicated problems. Due to demand, early education suppliers and publishers are responding with didactic, drill and kill (posed as “fun and engaging”) products and curricula. They are often designed as cleverly disguised worksheets and scripted lessons.

    The educational and consumer technology industry are among the worst offenders, offering up banal online activities (through apps and software as a service products) masked with mesmerizing animation that supposedly “teach Common Core Standards”. What? Really? They “teach”? Even though I am an early education technology advocate (when it is used correctly), I know apps and software don’t TEACH. They might (if they are good, and most are not good) support or extend learning that has been facilitated by teachers and parents, but they do not teach anything.

    These companies actually drum up fear and speculation in order to take capitalize. They began hyping CCSS years ago, well before CCSS began to even come close to impacting early education.

    I abhor the tactics these companies has used to incite fear and demand. And, I am sad that my field is so eager to find fast solutions. I blame us for being so pressured as to not look for better solutions, instead of purchasing products that promise to solve the problems quickly. If anyone or anything is guilty of squandering play, it is early educators who are intent on finding easy solutions.

    So, do we blame the increase of standards? Are standards inherently bad? Or is it our reaction to standards that is to blame?

    Fran Simon, M.Ed.

  2. Educators and parents are concerned about the decrease in time for play for the simple reason that this trend has already emerged. Education policy continues to demand high-stakes standardized testing which focuses on a narrow portion (academic) of the whole child, while neglecting the physical, social, self-regulatory, and artistic aspects of early childhood. Our present trajectory leads to less play, less joy, and more anxiety for children and educators.

    Our continued reliance on a curriculum driven instructional system, and the overuse of standardized assessment to judge kids and adults, is a good example of how good intentions can pave the road to hell.

  3. How eloquently said, Bob. I had the pleasure of hearing you speak for the second time at Fairfield University last week. Since then I have had a couple of parents mention that even at the Kindergarten level, the expectations are quite different than what we know to be true. The implementation of the CCSS has caused families to think that their children will not be well- prepared for what lies ahead, if we continue to promote play-based philosophies at our preschools.

    My hope is that more people like you can convince parents, teachers, administrators and those that promote CCSS that this is a destructive path. Life skills and purposeful play are the ingredients that contribute to the kind of human beings we want our children to become!

    • Ellen,
      Thanks for your kind words. I continue to believe that good reasoning and sound educational practices will lead us to a better day for our children.

  4. Actually as any in the classroom early childhood teacher will tell you the CCSS don’t have to address play to eliminate it. FACT when you are demanding mastery of cognitive academic tasks above a child’s developmental level to meet some arbitrary standard play has to go because more time is required laying elaborate scaffolds in place and lots of repetitive practice to enable the child to master a skill long enough for testing. As a result of this time hog something has to go and in classrooms all over the country that is all forms of playtime. Skilled educators do craft highly structured activities that many confuse with play but research has repeatedly demonstrated that the more structured an activity becomes the less intrinsic motivation you get from the learner. The inappropriate pushdown academics designed in direct opposition and contradiction to over 60 years of longitudinal ECE research including more recent research in developmental psychology, neural science and cognitive research do not have to do a thing to eliminate play, they do so by their very existence.