Coteau Elementary kindergarten teacher Tasha Jolivette-Jones spends half her day playing, and she wants other teachers to do the same.

The kindergarten educator was named the state’s second Louisiana Public Interest Fellow this June and was awarded a $50,000 stipend from the Louisiana Department of Education to promote play-centered learning for early childhood students.

Just weeks before the 2019-2020 school year began, Jolivette-Jones was still stunned by the award. She said she daydreamed about revolutionizing kindergarten education but didn’t expect that dream to move far beyond the Iberia Parish school district. The state’s vote of confidence in her students and the importance of their learning was incredible, she said.

Though research points to play-based learning as the developmentally appropriate practice for early learners, many educators pulled away from the practice as standardized testing performance became the priority in schools, Jolivette-Jones said.

Though kindergartners aren’t tested, teachers felt the need to implement more regimented coursework to ensure students would be on course to meet testing goals in later grades, she said.

Her goal is to drive home that play-based learning can meet state learning standards while promoting deeper engagement and increased rigor. While purposeful play looks different than a 30-minute lecture or worksheet, Jolivette-Jones said it’s more beneficial because it builds on children’s natural learning ability without hampering their curiosity by imposing artificial learning styles.

“Play is fun, but fun doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. To the untrained eye it looks like chaos, but someone trained in early childhood development knows it’s learning and it’s high value,” she said.

To engage her students in purposeful play, Jolivette-Jones established learning labs in a portable classroom at her school. The labs feature established play sets including grocery stores and doctor’s offices, as well as invented games. The diverse options encourage students to explore their interests and build social-emotional skills while practicing desired learning standards, she said.

“That’s my job as a teacher, to give them opportunities to engage in their own learning. There’s nothing I can make them sit down and listen to me lecture that would teach them more than hands-on experiences. It’s my job to frame that in a safe way and that’s approachable to them,” she said.

On a normal day, that looks like 20 excited kindergartners spread throughout Coteau’s learning lab. While three children use tongs to select letter cards from a bucket, a child across the room designs a rocket ship and executes his plan using blocks. Each is following the class’s mantra to “plan, draw, write and do.”

While fun, the children are also developing fine motor skills, learning to work in partnership with other students and solidifying their understanding of key concepts, like counting and cardinality, literacy and scientific investigation, Jolivette-Jones said.

Jolivette-Jones tracks each child’s progress using clipboards and a detailed learning plan for each child. She sets learning goals for each child and documents when and how well the child exhibits each skill. If she doesn’t see the skill present naturally, she’ll offer prompts or join the child in a game to present the concept in a natural way and observe, she said.

The fellow’s goal is to create a replicable model of her system to lower the barrier of entry for other teachers interested in implementing play-based learning in their classrooms. Jolivette-Jones is working to make the execution affordable and accessible.

Jolivette-Jones enlisted a committee of four kindergarten teachers in Iberia Parish to operate as model classrooms and build out the program. The four teachers are at Loreauville Elementary, Sugarland Elementary, Pesson Elementary and Delcambre Elementary, to feature a more diverse range of student demographics, socioeconomic groups and school environments, she said.

Each teacher is dividing her class’s instructional minutes into half play-based learning time and half traditional structured learning.

“We’re trying to give a good picture of what this would look like anywhere. The goal is to show play would provide more success no matter where you are and who your kids are,” Jolivette-Jones said.

Each committee member is developing strategies around family involvement, digital resources, community involvement and community donations. Once complete, they’ll have a full guide walking teachers and school districts through how to implement a purposeful play model in their classrooms.

The guide will include suggested classroom materials and activities, but also detail grant and local donation opportunities, templates for requesting services or donations from local businesses and contact information for willing community partners, among other things, Jolivette-Jones said.

The $50,000 state stipend will be used for professional development opportunities, to travel to other model classrooms or school districts to study their methods, or to fund substitute teachers if the committee needs to meet during the school day, she said.

Once presented with the research and an execution plan, most people buy-in to the practice, Jolivette-Jones said. Most early childhood teachers are interested in implementing play-based strategies, they just need the support, she said.

Coteau Elementary Principal Consuela Roberson said one of the biggest barriers to engaging in play-based learning is the time required to establish the curriculum and learning centers. She said she thinks Jolivette-Jones’ fellowship work will help make the implementation more manageable for many time-strapped educators.

Roberson said she’s been a fan of Jolivette-Jones’ approach for years. The two women began working together about 14 years ago when Roberson first hired Jolivette-Jones while principal at Canal Elementary in Jeanerette.

She said too many people underestimate the importance of early childhood education. Without the foundation of social-emotional learning and self-exploration that takes place, children wouldn’t be prepared for further education, Roberson said.

“We want them to be creative problem solvers, but if we’re not doing anything to nurture it when they’re young how are they supposed to do that when they’re older?” Roberson questioned.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com