How One Group Held a ‘Play-In’ to Promote Appropriate Early Childhood Education

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Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

Michelle Gunderson, Early Childhood Committee Chairperson of the Chicago Teachers Union explains how a group of parents, children, and educators held a ‘Play-In’ in the front hallway of the Board of Education of the Chicago Public Schools as a way of promoting appropriate curricula in the early grades. You can also read Michelle’s letter to Arne Duncan regarding the Play-In.

On April 17th parents, children, and educators gathered in the front hallway of the Board of Education of the Chicago Public Schools for a Play-In. Participants brought blankets to create play centers on the floor with legos, play dough, art projects, puzzles, games, music – and much laughter and a sense of joy. This painted the picture for our community of what an early childhood classroom should look like.

Our youngest children’s classrooms in Chicago have become increasingly focused on testing and developmentally inappropriate academic practice. Children need play. It is how they learn. It is how they thrive.

Our Play-In had a strong message – less tests, more play.

When taking action on any issue we need to analyze whether the action unites us, makes us stronger, and gives us power. We also need to design actions on a continuum so that people can find a comfort level in which they can enter a movement. Not everyone is willing to protest in the streets or get arrested the first time they enter a cause. Our Play-In helped build unity in which approximately 100 people participated, and was an action that everyone was comfortable entering. It is hard to make an informed argument against play. Our cause was just.

This event took two months to plan, and the cooperation and support of several groups. It was held on a half day of school so that many parents, children, and teachers could attend and it was a day that the employees at the Board of Education were working. They had to walk past us to get to work. We were noticed.


Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

The Play-In was headed by a group of concerned parents, teachers, and community members called More Than a Score. The event organizer, Kirstin Roberts, worked diligently to embrace as many other groups as possible. Social media, websites, and fliers were used to get the message out. The action was also supported and publicized through the Chicago Teachers Union. In addition, the event organizers reached out to the academic community for support. This was an action that united us.

These are other considerations for those planning a similar action:

  • Always make children’s safety a priority. We had volunteers in orange safety vests labeled “Play Patrol.”
  • Create an atmosphere that is as close to a developmentally appropriate early childhood classroom as much as possible. Children are provided choices and activities that represent the joy of discovery learning through play.
  • Each educator and parent who set up a learning activity also had a poster that explained the fundamental learning attached to the play.
  • Develop a press release, call upon representatives to have prepared remarks, and invite media
  • Have several people based on the perimeter to counter any negative reactions. The Chicago Public Schools security department called the police, and we were able to explain our situation and rights in a peaceful, productive manner. The police just smiled and shook their heads.
  • Sing! We find that music unites us and builds our strength.

Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

Experiential learning that involves play-based activities is the right of every young child. It is how children develop their concept of self and make sense of the world around them. As parents and teachers we witnessed a narrowing of the curriculum to pencil and paper activities to the point where play has become non-existent in some of our Chicago schools. We have had enough and are speaking out. It is our hope that our actions inspire you to do the same.