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Playing school: Plano elementary schools at forefront of educational play

Melissa Crisci has always known she wanted to be a teacher.

“When I was young, maybe kindergarten age, I remember playing school and always wanting to be the teacher,” she said. “Then, as I got older, I loved to babysit and be around kids. I come from a family of teachers, so I don’t think anyone was surprised when I wanted to become a teacher, too.”

Crisci, the instructional coach at P.H. Miller and Centennial elementary schools in Plano, and Laurel Mateyka, principal of P.H. Miller Elementary School, are two of the five educators recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education for their leadership in implementing the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey. 

ISBE named the five inaugural KIDS MVPs at the third annual Mastering KIDS Summit on Dec. 13 in Normal. In addition to the award, each KIDS MVP received a $100 DonorsChoose gift card.

In a Plano School District 88 news release, the KIDS MVPs are described as educators who have “embraced KIDS as a tool to better understand what kindergarten students need at their age, such as developmentally appropriate play-based instruction.”

When listing the accolades of the award winners, Crisci is said to have “led and supported her kindergarten team in transforming their classroom environments to be more conducive to play-based learning,” and Mateyka “used the KIDS Parent Report to share information with parents and guardians during parent-teacher conferences and used KIDS to bridge the gaps between pre-k, kindergarten and first grade.”

The other three KIDS MVPs award winners were Melissa Davidson, a kindergarten teacher with an emphasis in special education in Morrisonville Community Unit School District 1, Julie Frank, a kindergarten teacher in Bethalto Community Unit School District 8, and Michelle Lewis, a bilingual kindergarten teacher in West Chicago Elementary School District 33.

“I think that receiving the award is an honor, and it’s good to be recognized for doing our job and what’s best for the kids,” Mateyka said. “I think that it’s a team effort at our school, with all of us teachers and administrators working together with the parents and our students.”

What is KIDS?

Mateyka described KIDS, the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, as a state-mandated assessment completed by kindergarten teachers in the fall around the 40th day of school.

“KIDS is not a paper and pencil assessment completed by students,” Mateyka said. “Instead, the teachers look at four areas, or domains, to track each child’s developmental levels. The teachers observe the domains and measures in the classroom. The state only requires 14 measures, but we track even more, and the state requires KIDS only in the fall, but we do it in the fall, winter and spring. It’s important for us to see how our students are progressing through the year.”

The four domains are approaches to learning: self-regulation, social and emotional development, language and literacy, and cognition, including math and science. Measures include engagement and persistence, relationships and social interactions with peers, communication and use of language, letter and word knowledge, and shapes.

“The hardest domains to observe were the first two because you want to authentically experience their approaches to learning and social and emotional development,” Mateyka said. “By incorporating play into the classroom, we can easily assess those domains and our students’ learning.”

Learning through Play

Crisci said the teachers and administrators have been working on incorporating play into classrooms since spring of last year.

“We wanted to see how the students learn through purposeful play: they can build critical thinking and social skills, collaborate, problem-solve and learn [science, technology, engineering and math],” Crisci said. “Of course the students played during recess, but it was not play structured in an academic setting.”

Since the second semester started at the beginning of January, educators at P.H. Miller, led by Crisci and Mateyka, have been creating dramatic play centers for each of the seven kindergarten classrooms. The play centers, made from plastic bins on wheels, will be used and shared between the teachers.

Each bin has a different theme: pizza restaurant, farm, space, camping, fire station, veterinary clinic, grocery store and construction site. Each center contains items for the students to use their imagination and creativity to roleplay the theme together.

Kindergarten teacher Nicole Kulbartz already implements dramatic play into her curriculum and rearranged her classroom to have play stations, such as a dollhouse and blocks. Her husband made a large wooden stand that is now being used as the cashier’s desk of the McKinder Café.

“You might see it as only play, but the students are learning about real-life experiences,” Kulbartz said. “In our ‘restaurant,’ they are learning how to write, how to count money, the roles of different workers in a restaurant, like a chef and waitress. It could inspire their interests or future careers.”

Crisci said dramatic play allows students to make their own decisions, learning and growing creatively while having fun.

“It’s not adults telling kids what to do,” Crisci said. “The students are able to think for themselves and solve problems on their own. They are building skills and learning through play.”

Brittany Pezold, lead teacher for the preschool program at P.H. Miller, said the dramatic play centers are “new and innovative.”

“They’re not like anything I’ve seen before; they’re a great idea to implement play and fun into the classroom,” Pezold said. “It teaches students how to get along well with others, how to play and communicate. They’re creating scenarios they might not otherwise have, being rocket scientists and pizza chefs and farmers. All of that play can be expanded upon with teachers reading books aloud in the classroom. It’s a unique experience that we’re at the forefront of.”

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