March 14, 2023

Playful Learning in Alabama

Ben Mardell

In the fall, I was in Mobile, Alabama for the State Department of Education’s annual MEGA Conference. Pedagogy of Play fellow Dr. Melissa Scarpate and I were invited to present by the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) which is taking a playful approach to literacy instruction. I want to share a few impressions of my visit.

Alabama educators are actively navigating the paradoxes between play and school. While play supports learning, there are paradoxes between play and school that can make it difficult for playful learning to thrive. For example, in play, children are in charge whereas in school, educators have important learning goals for our students.

Rather than seeing this paradox as an “either/or,” teachers at the Chickasaw Elementary School are turning the situation into a “yes/and.” I sat in on an ARI summer reading camp for rising first graders. The children had been identified as needing additional support, and the teachers had specific literacy goals for them. These goals were being met by providing meaningful, engaging activities. I saw a group of happy children taking part in rich conversations, involved in dramatic play, and eagerly reading along with their teacher to develop their vocabulary, sense of story, concepts of print, and phonemic awareness.

Chickasaw Elementary students create animal habitats as part of their animal investigations. Photo courtesy Melissa Scarpate.

Educators are using playful learning to address trauma. Coaches from the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education crisscross the state to help teachers in supporting children who are experiencing trauma. The coaches know that promoting children’s emotional and social development (closely linked to their intellectual development) involves more than what is typically called “behavioral management”; that play has a central role in children’s development.

Playful learning is percolating up in Alabama. For sixteen consecutive years, Alabama’s state funded pre-k program has ranked highly in the National Institute for Early Education Research’s State of Preschool Yearbook. For good reason, the state makes a big commitment of treasure and talent to supporting early education. The whole child, playful approach in preschool is percolating up to kindergarten and primary school through a program titled “The Alabama Pre-K-3rd Grade Integrated Approach to Early Learning.” The P-3 program, as it is called, is a three-pronged effort that supports school leadership, instruction, and assessment that began in 2017 and is showing strong outcomes.

The program has a wonderful origin story. After receiving a First Class Pre-K, Kindergarten teachers at Zion Chapel reported that children were coming better prepared for learning.  These kindergarten teachers began asking if they could be a part of what the teachers in the First Class Pre-K were doing. Discussions soon began with the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE).  With seed money from the Kellogg Foundation, a partnership between the ADECE and the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) developed to create an integrated approach to early learning - commonly referred to as P3 - funding a pilot of 35 classrooms.  

Evaluation results from the pilot showed positive effects for the children and teachers. Children showed higher percentages of Meets/Exceeds levels for academic skills. Teachers and families reported an increase in children's problem solving skills, communication, and behavioral/socio-emotional regulation. They also reported a decrease in challenging behaviors. Professional development (i.e., coaching) is part of the program for the teachers and school leaders, and both groups note growth in their skills. Additionally, teachers reported a higher job satisfaction, the result of the joy that comes from watching students who are engaged in learning.

These outcomes resulted in secured funding for and continuation of the P3 program, with the Alabama Pre-K to 3rd Grade Integrated Approach to Early Learning becoming part of Governor Kay Ivey’s Strong Start Strong Finish (SSSF) Initiative. Today, P-3 is included in state funding appropriations and the program has grown from the original 35 to over 200 classrooms statewide. Zion Chapel, as well as other schools in the state, has moved the whole child, playful approach to learning through second grade. ADECE is now in partnership with University of Alabama (UA) and the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) to research and identify the components that contribute to the success of the P3 initiative which will help other schools replicate and sustain the model.  In addition to the research with UA/UAB, the ADECE continues to partner with teachers and administrators, with assistance from P3 coaches, to support student outcomes.  

This was my first visit to Alabama. I was able to visit some places of wonderful natural beauty (e.g., Dauphin Island). I had some food I had never had before (boiled peanuts—very tasty!). And I learned that the state is navigating the paradoxes between play and school through different programs and departments, meeting children’s social, emotional and academic needs.