Every day starts with play.
Waltham kindergarten teacher Karin Kummer is happy the importance of play is coming back for students.
She’s worked as a Waltham teacher for 16 years and worked for Putnam County for six years before that. The students are happier, more engaged and motivated when they’re able to learn in a playful way, such as using alphabet puzzles or retelling stories with puppets.
The reintroduction of the importance of play was discussed recently at a Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) summit. KIDS is a tool that helps better understand the readiness of kindergartners.
“All those things help them be creative and solve problems and work with their classmates,” she said.
This summer, the Illinois State Board of Education released statewide results of the 2018-19 KIDS assessment, which helps teachers, parents and families better understand the developmental readiness of children entering kindergarten.
Kindergarten teachers statewide began using KIDS in fall 2017, so the ISBE said it's still in the process of learning the data and trying to identify trends. The statewide implementation followed five years of piloting with select districts.
The assessment involves kindergarten teachers collecting multiple pieces of evidence for each student on 14 measures in three areas – social and emotional development, language and literacy, and math – during the first 40 days of school.
The newest assessment found 26% of kindergartners demonstrated readiness in all three developmental areas.
La Salle Northwest kindergarten teacher Cathy Smudzinski has noticed overall that students are not coming in ready as they had in the past academically, socially and emotionally. She’s taught for 18 years.
How kids play has changed over the years, said Derek Kilmartin, La Salle’s school district curriculum director and pre-school director, mentioning that play deals with many more electronics than in the past.
The two mentioned that language skills are a concern locally, statewide and nationally. More kids than ever are nonverbal, Kilmartin said.
Years ago, children picked up books and pretended to read that book and talk about the pictures, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore, Smudzinski said.
Smudzinski notices a difference even in public spaces like restaurants and parks how parents behave differently with children now than in the past.
She recalled bringing toys and books with her own children when going out and interacting with them. Sometimes, she used whatever was at the table (such as building with coffee creamers at the table).
But now children are more often watching videos and playing on phones. All those little interactions between kids and items such as building creamers at a table make a difference when it comes to building skills, she said.
Amy Turri, who has been a kindergarten teacher at Oglesby for 16 years, said she’s noticed kindergarten readiness has improved over time, and she thinks there are more expectations for kindergartners than in the past and also the availability of two-year preschool programs helps students.
Funding in early childhood education is needed throughout Illinois so all children have an even playing field when they enter kindergarten, said Michelle Zeko, superintendent for Ladd Community Consolidated School District.
“It bothers me that we’re looking at kindergarten readiness when we don’t have the funding levels for everyone to be even,” Zeko said.
For the past two years, the state hasn’t funded the district’s preschool program, so parents have had to pay tuition for the preschool program during that period.
Some families aren’t able to afford the preschool tuition, and many of those families told the district they would have to keep the children at home.
Zeko said she thinks a child will be affected by not attending preschool, not only academically with learning numbers and letters but also when it comes to social and emotional skills.
In preschool, children learn how to share, take turns, work together in a group and play games — “All those skills we take for granted sometimes as adults, but someone has to teach that to the children,” she said.
Putnam County superintendent Carl Carlson said the results gave them good insight as to areas the district can try to improve on as well as looking to see patterns or pockets that can be addressed.
“The KIDS data is just one point on the grand scheme of things. While we review the numbers, we also continually view the story behind the numbers,” Carlson said. “That comes from building relationships and positive school experiences that try to offset the pressures of one-time assessments.”
Tips for parents on kindergarten readiness:
Waltham kindergarten teacher Karin Kummer: "Let your kids play with other children so they know how to take turns and work together; give them independence by letting them put on their own clothes and shoes; give them responsibilities like having them pick up their own toys and bring a dish to the sink after dinner; start routines like brushing teeth, reading a story and then going to bed so that the transition to school routines isn’t so difficult."
La Salle kindergarten teacher Cathy Smudzinski: "Sit and play with them, make learning fun, talk with them, put puzzles together with them, let them cut paper with scissors, count numbers to Grandma’s house, sort socks — make everyday activities into an educational activity."
Oglesby kindergarten teacher Amy Turri: Reading to your kids is the No. 1 tip. She said “LeapFrog: Letter Factory” is a very good tool.