Play is enjoying a renaissance in education as a growing body of research supports its ability to promote intellectual and emotional growth. But the play-based aspect of full-day kindergarten in Ontario is being threatened as budget pressures and growing demand have prompted nearly 40 schools to introduce full-day kindergarten-Grade 1 split classes, with more likely coming this fall.
The move has raised concerns from teachers who say the free-moving play-based program is incompatible with the Grade 1 curriculum.
"It's like combining the hockey team with the swim team," said James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. "Ultimately, what's going to happen if boards do that is it will shortchange the kindergarten students of their play-based program."
Kindergarten students spend part of their school day drifting among "free-choice centres" that are regularly updated with new toys and props that reflect their interests.
But the Grade 1 curriculum is very different. It's more structured and students spend a lot more time at their desks. Running both programs out of one classroom could mean less play and exploration among kindergartners.
In a letter sent to education directors last year, the Ministry of Education instructed school boards to allow full-day kindergarten-Grade 1 splits only in "extremely exceptional circumstances."
As an example, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky pointed to rural school boards where only five students have enrolled in the full-day program.
"I think numbers are probably the greatest reason why we might see that happen," she said. "Wherever we have small schools. ... Typically that's not in cities."
But 14 of the province's 72 school boards are already offering splits. The GTA's York Region District School Board has introduced splits at five of its 25 full-day kindergarten schools. Pockets of population growth have made splits necessary and more will likely be added next year, according to YRDSB officials.
The Thames Valley District School Board, which serves London and the surrounding area, is considering split classes next year.
"Little wee ones don't come in neat bundles of 24 or 26," said Céline Bourbonnais-MacDonald, a superintendent for the board.
The full-day kindergarten program is funded based on an average class size of 26 students. But parents' enthusiasm for the program has boosted enrolment beyond projections, leading some boards to dip into other parts of their thinly stretched budgets to meet demand. In rural areas, some schools might not have the numbers to support a standalone kindergarten classroom, and in more urban areas, overflow is also leading to split classes.
Not everyone is concerned. Beate Planche, a superintendent with the York Region school board, said some children enter kindergarten ahead of their peers academically, and they can benefit from exposure to the Grade 1 curriculum.
"We feel that combined grades at any level can be a very wonderful learning experience for kids," she said.
Combining full-day kindergarten and Grade 1 does require in-depth planning from teachers, she said, but it's not "unrealistic."
"I'm not trying to be Pollyanna about it. ... I'm saying that it's a reality in our school system and there's a way to make it extremely successful," Dr. Planche said.
Split kindergarten classes are not new, though with full-day kindergarten they're becoming more common. Many boards have introduced junior-senior kindergarten splits as a way to promote co-operation and leadership among older students, and some even put part-time kindergartners in Grade 1 classrooms.
Teachers have always found these classrooms hard to manage, said Mr. Ryan of the Catholic Teachers Association, and the new full-day program only makes it worse.
In classrooms across Ontario, play-based full-day kindergarten has led to everything from archaeological digs through plastic-dinosaur-infested sandboxes, to carpets turned into castle construction sites, to plastic flower shops. The idea is that curriculum should be driven by curiosity, and that given enough time to explore, children will ask the important questions on their own and retain more than they would from a lecture.
"It's hard because you still have to know how to get around all the same stuff in the curriculum, but it's driven by the kids," said Jackie Sherkey, a full-day kindergarten teacher at Westminster Public School in Thornhill. "The challenge is you can't plan that far ahead because you don't know what the kids are going to come up with."