Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kelly Reilly: Play plus magical teaching equals the best preparation for school success

By Kelly Reilly

As a former elementary reading teacher with a soon-to-be kindergartener, I’ve been thinking about the types of experiences my son will have once he enters school next August.

My own kindergarten experience was on the verge of magical, thanks mostly to my amazing teacher, Mrs. Tillet. One moment stands out most distinctly: when I showed Mrs. Tillet my translucent, white paper with the mashed on black letters from my mom’s typewriting machine. I knew good and well that it was just a jumbled string of letters, but to this day I can still feel the widening of my eyes and see Mrs. Tillet’s even wider smile as she stooped down beside me and said, “What a wonderful story, Kelly! Will you read it to me?” I made up a story right there on the spot, and as silly as it may sound, I’m not sure I’ve had a feeling of pride much bigger than I did right at that moment. The night before I was playing with my mom’s typewriting machine, and all of a sudden, thanks to the keen observation of my kindergarten teacher, I was a storyteller.

I wonder sometimes if my typewritten page would have been met with as much enthusiasm in today’s kindergarten classrooms. (Let me be clear that I am in no way slighting the work of kindergarten teachers today, who are not to be held accountable for the changing kindergarten standards. In many ways, the work of the kindergarten teachers I have witnessed over the years is even more magical than Mrs. Tillet, since they lead children to success in spite of the disappearing focus on social and emotional skills in favor of more academic ones.) The focus of kindergarten is clearly more academic than it was “in my day,” and I can’t help but wonder if the immediate reaction to my typewritten page would have been an analysis of how many letters I knew, my incorrect spacing, or the lack of any “sight words.”

The push to reach the correct reading level by the end of kindergarten is, for many kids, a shove, that leaves the time for pretend play simply unavailable. Pretend play is what sets the foundation for storytelling, and storytelling is what sets the foundation for reading and writing. Of course, when I recount the previous experience, the realization is that Mrs. Tillet didn’t fill me with pride that day by pushing me to read someone else’s story. She did something much better ... she made me believe I could tell my own.

Fortunately, my son’s preschool experience at The Children’s Cooperative Playschool has renewed my sense that the belief in the power of play is still alive and well. Their play-based curriculum is clearly touted in their philosophy and practice, and I see my son learning and holding onto his successful experiences. At times the looming fear of kindergarten has made me worry: “Will a play-based curriculum fully prepare my son for the academic pressures of kindergarten?” Of course, these worries are short-lived when I see how much my son is enjoying school, and that the focus on developmentally appropriate skills, including social and emotional skills, are addressing the needs of my son as a whole person, not just an academic one.

Recently, when I sat down with my son’s teacher at a conference, I started to choke up when we discussed some of his fine-motor skills. The teacher mentioned that he will make comments like, “Using scissors is hard for me,” or, “I can’t cut with scissors well.” My voice got a little shaky as I said, “I know. I hate that he can be so hard on himself.” And in the back of my mind I thought about how there can be a lot of cutting with scissors in kindergarten.

But then the discussion shifted when his teacher highlighted the next section of his report. “He has determination to work hard even when a task may be more challenging for him, especially when encouraged.” She then described my son trying out the class “balance beam,” and how he said it would be tricky for him. The teacher told him to give it a try and that she would help if needed. My son did try the activity, and continued trying for 15 minutes until he could balance all the way to the end without falling off.

The lump in my throat immediately dissipated as I smiled. So what if there was a lot of cutting with scissors in kindergarten, and it was still tricky for my son next year? His other “playful” preschool experiences were teaching him that he could be successful by keeping up his focus and persistence, and that a kind, trusting teacher would be available for help if needed. Perhaps one day my son will even look back at that balance beam experience and remember his own eyes widening at the realization that he could, in fact, do more than he thought possible.

These days, I’m no longer worried about how well a play-based curriculum is preparing my son for kindergarten. I know it’s working. My hope now is that we will soon see the return of play-based curriculum in kindergarten, so that the joy of learning and magic of teaching can continue seamlessly beyond the days of preschool. As Mr. Rogers so aptly said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

For information on how your child can become a part of the play-based community at Children’s Cooperative Playschool, please visit: