Last September, before school began, I made my way to the Brooklyn Historical Society for the launch of Renée Dinnerstein’s new book, Choice Time. At a time of standardized tests for five-year-olds, canned curriculum, didactic instruction, and the Common Core—in a city of deep inequality and segregation—this event was long overdue.
More than 200 teachers poured into the landmark Romanesque Revival building, now a center of urban history, civic dialogue, and community outreach. Many were left standing around the edges of the room, the air tense with expectancy. After a day of setting up their classrooms, they still had energy to burn.
Following a PowerPoint presentation, Dinnerstein invited Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, to join her for a conversation. Both women are committed to active learning, equality of opportunity and diversity, the nurturance of community and democracy, and the belief that young children, who are naturally thoughtful and curious, make their own meaning, with adults as their trusted guides.
Dinnerstein and Allanbrook are members of a vanishing species of educator. Attention was rapt as they reflected on the challenges of upholding the progressive ethos in a city where it has become the province of the privileged. The audience was primed for the discussion, bursting into applause when the subject of segregation came up. “All parents want to send their children to schools where exciting things are happening,” Dinnerstein said.
The spirit of Lillian Weber hovered over the proceedings. A revered professor of early childhood education at the City College of New York, she supported teacher activism at the grassroots, and became the first woman, in 1973, to deliver the annual John Dewey Society lecture—well before No Child Behind and corporate reform would wreak havoc with the philosopher’s creed. “Find the cracks,” Weber urged her students, a sentiment echoed by the late Leonard Cohen in “Anthem,” released in the early 90s: “There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That’s how the light gets in.”
Choice Time, a guide to deepening learning through inquiry and play, is Dinnerstein’s gift to the city’s early childhood teachers, with whom she’s been working for nearly five decades. They’re hard pressed to find the light in today’s climate of constraint and metrics. The pressure on them and the children is acute, robbing both parties of autonomy, agency, and joy in the work at hand. “We need a revolution,” Dinnerstein declared, plaintively, at one point during the evening.
The book begins with a quick scan of the research on play, a powerful engine of human development. The repercussions of its disappearance cannot be overstated, especially for children in poverty. As Regina Milteer, Kenneth Ginsburg, and Deborah Ann Mulligan warned in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012. “To effectively preserve play in the lives of economically disadvantaged children,” they wrote, “its presence in schools …must be supported…Otherwise, school engagement might suffer and efforts at creating a better-prepared generation might fail.”
Their concern was welcome, but their advice had gone unheeded. In the nation’s classrooms, the damage had been accruing, block by block banished from kindergarten—along with the kind of active learning that children need to thrive. Joan Almon and Edward Miller had been tracking the trend, reporting on its implications in their seminal work, Crisis in the Kindergarten, published by the Alliance for Childhood in 2009.
In Choice Time, Dinnerstein offers readers a taxonomy of play adapted from this report, nine types encompassing “forms of exploration that support…social, emotional, creative, and intellectual growth.” Never mind the overlap in form and function—children develop mastery, learn rules, and have their senses engaged in many kinds of play. In clear, simple language, she sets forth the rationale, rooted in research, for the centers of the ideal classroom:
… it’s a laboratory for exploratory learning, a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative art projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to find out information and feel free to imagine and try out possibilities. It’s a place where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations.
Here, learning is collaborative, students’ voices are heard, and their work documented. The teacher is the guide, scaffolding “children’s natural instincts for play, introducing materials and posing questions and ideas that help them develop a wide range of skills.”
Observation and recording, a vanishing skill in the age of quick, quantitative assessment, undergirds practice. Close, careful attention to children yields information for extending their learning. In the centers Dinnerstein proposes (blocks, science, reading nook, dramatic play, math, and art), these strategies hold, and she tells her readers just what to do, chapters interspersed with charts called “Teaching Interventions,” lined with observations and possible responses.
All of the above requires time—in short supply as we continue to race our students to the top. In the second chapter, Dinnerstein gets to the core of the loss:
It may be that of all the voices in the classroom, time actually speaks the loudest. How we use time during the day speaks volumes about our beliefs about teaching and learning and our understanding of the developmental needs of young children. Just as the heart pumps blood through the…vessels of the circulatory system, providing the body with oxygen and important nutrients, choice activities are vital to the well-being of young children…
Dinnerstein’s blueprint for change requires leaps of imagination and faith for the new generation of early childhood educators. They’ve come of age professionally during an era of reform that has pushed children’s needs and the evidence base to the periphery. Practitioners in a field long marginalized, they’ve been reluctant to challenge the regime.
Last year, at a meeting in East Harlem, where choice time is but a dream, a principal from Sunset Park, a gentrifying community of immigrants in Brooklyn, spoke of how she had just brought back blocks to her elementary school, after more than a decade’s hiatus. The teachers didn’t know how to use them. Choice Time lets the light in.