Ijumaa, why is play an equity issue?

Happy Real World Wednesday! This week we have the pleasure of introducing Ijumaa Jordan! Slide1

Ijumaa is an early education consultant, who focuses on reflective practice, culturally relevant teaching, and developing anti-bias curriculum for young children and adults. Being a part of Harvest Resources Associates, means much of her work with teachers and administrators happens by facilitating professional development in a “community of practice” model that promotes reflective teaching practices and leadership.

Ijumaa has more than twenty years of teaching in early education and directing and also serves as an Adjunct Instructor. She received her Basic Core Certificate in Early Childhood Education from UCLA Extension followed by a BA in Human Development from Pacific Oaks College with a concentration in Early Childhood Education, Emergent Curriculum, and Anti-bias Education. She also received her MA in Human Development from Pacific Oaks with a concentration in Leadership in Education and Human Services with sub-specializations in College Teaching/Teaching Adults.

At the 2016 NAEYC Annual Conference, Ijumaa is hoping to lead a session titled, Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free: Ensuring children from all socio-economic and racial groups have access to free and complex play. Given her interests and expertise, we decided to ask her: “Ijumaa, why is play an equity issue?”

Here’s her incredibly thoughtful response:

Play is a right for all children and they deserve an early education experience that supports this right. As more research and opinion pieces are written about how play is disappearing in early education, the “elephant in the room” is that this worrisome trend is not impacting all young children equally. The reality is that early education is segregated by race and class in the same way K-12 is. We can no longer live in a fantasy that we can advocate for play-centered early care and education without dismantling the oppressive educational system that denies access play based on race and class.

As a consultant I get invited to visit programs across the country. What I began to notice is that access to play differed depending the racial and socio-economic status of children being served with a few exceptions. I observed different environments, the quality of play materials, and teachers’ interactions with children. I recently visited a program in an affluent community where four out of eighty children are Korean American, two children are Chinese American, one child is African American, one child is bi-racial (African American and Latina from Puerto Rico). The rest of the children are white. Children have lush outdoor environments to explore where they can roll down a hill, climb up the tree house and slide down, there is paint on easels that cover a wall. There is a wire construction that you can add more wire and beads to. There are two water tables one with plastic sea animals and the other with different kinds of cups. Inside the classrooms there are areas for dressing up to save the world from monsters, building a farm and a rocket ship with unit blocks, there are drums and a basket of scarves for interpretive dance. I hear children laughing, talking, whispering, and crying while being held because they fell down. I see a teacher with a small group of children discussing their plan to build a rolling river in the sand pit outside and drawing their plans. The teacher who is giving me the tour shows me the children’s developmental portfolios that are filled with work samples of drawing and writing, pictures with captions, anecdotal notes, comments from parents, and in the back a developmental checklist.

In contrast, I also recently visited a publicly-funded preschool program located in a working class neighborhood. The racial make up is 50 percent Latino/Latina from Mexico and El Salvador and 50 percent African American. 40 percent of the children speak Spanish as their first language. Spanish and English are spoken in the classroom but most of the written material is in English. Four classrooms encircle a large yard with most of the space taken up by a huge play structure. I find out later that the families helped fundraise for it. I was told that because they share the yard with other classrooms, outside playtime is twenty minutes. Most children run around the play structure and the children tell me that sometimes their teacher brings out balls. When they laugh loud or yell they are asked to lower their voices. Once inside they sit on the carpet on top of their own carpet piece. The teacher waits about five minutes for everyone to sit with their legs crossed and hands in their laps. She reads a book from the reading curriculum on the letter M then has children repeat preselected M words that she shows with cards. After group time the children go to their assigned seats at their group desk with their either the teacher or assistant teacher and trace the letter M. Then (finally) it’s indoor play time. The choices are puzzles, a set of Legos, a craft project of pasting a pre-cut monkey (for the letter M) on a paper bag to make a puppet, and the dramatic play that is set up as a kitchen with babies on a bed. The director showed me the assessment books, which had the child’s picture on the front and a print out of the assessment tool marked.

Reading these descriptions of two different programs you might think well it’s just because the teachers in the second program are less educated and don’t know the value and importance of play. In both programs the teachers have at least BA degrees and the assistant teachers are either in college or have associate degrees. The teachers in both programs know that play is valuable and learned about that in their formal and informal education opportunities. The problem is more systematic.

In an early education environment where more assessments and regulations are administered the unintentional consequence has been the lack of play and more teacher directed activities to “teach” children the skills that will make them “school ready” and “close the achievement gap”. Teachers are pressured to raise assessment scores so they “teach to the assessment”. These educational reforms applied to low-income children, children of color, and native children are restricting their access to self-initiated, complex play.

It’s time we discuss and analyze how systematic classism and racism privileges play for some children, while devaluing it for others. With the goal of moving play back to the center of childhood experiences for all.

I would love to have more conversations about this topic you can find me on Facebook on my professional page Ijumaa Jordan – ECE Consultant or on twitter @ijumaaj.

Thank you, Ijumaa!

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