August 2019 | Volume XXXVII. Issue 4 »

Simple Play: Kindergarten Readiness in Illinois

July 29, 2019
Katie Clausen, Gail Borden Public Library District

Every librarian I know in Illinois is concerned about kindergarten readiness in our children. In 2017, results for a new state measure established by the Illinois State Board of Education called KIDS, or Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, were staggering. According to KIDS, about 3 in 4 children entering kindergarten in 2017 were not ready for the classroom. In KIDS assessments, teachers measure 14 developmental benchmarks within the first 40 days of attendance by observing students in language, literacy, math, social and emotional development, as well as in skill-building competencies, such as curiosity, creativity and perseverance.

When KIDS results were released, I felt discouraged. Results in Elgin school district U-46 painted a bleak picture. Only 48% of kindergartners who previously attended U-46 preschool met the kindergarten readiness benchmark for reading—being able to identify 40 upper/lowercase letters, and 54% of students were reading at or above grade level. On a state level, there is also a significant racial disparity: 32% of Asian kindergartners and 29% of Caucasian students demonstrated readiness, compared to only 19% of African American students and 13% of Hispanic students. Elgin’s population is 45.1% Hispanic, which means our need for reform is high, and we must work to close that gap for these children.

The data is distressing—almost shocking. Our instinct may be to do more—“kick it into high gear” and “double down on some serious early literacy.” However, this approach may not be constructive in correcting the deficits. Do kindergarteners in Illinois begin school unprepared? Yes. We need to be doing a better job. But how? Full-day preschool, community initiatives, and teacher trainings are opportunities. But perhaps we need to make the approach simpler, rather than more sophisticated. Early literacy experts often say, “Parents are a child’s first and best teacher.” But many parents and caregivers aren’t sure what that phrase means or how to be their child’s best teacher. In fact, words like “early literacy,” “language development,” “early math,” and “socio-emotional skills” can convolute things more, and even feel intimidating.

Additionally, parents are stressed—often chronically. Many are working more than one job, living paycheck to paycheck, and facing barriers to access basic necessities. This creates further shame about parenting. Things like “early literacy” don’t mean much when there’s no food on the table. Research from the University of Rochester found that “ongoing strains, like poverty or depression, disrupt the body's natural stress response, making mothers more likely to engage in a host of problematic parenting behaviors, including neglect, hostility, and insensitivity.” If parents don’t have positive parenting tools, self-resilience, and encouragement from other adults, how can we expect them to prepare their kids for kindergarten?

Finding a solution to the kindergarten readiness problem in Illinois seems daunting; however, here are some suggestions for how to make progress. First, we can look to Every Child Ready to Read® , a parent and caregiver education initiative developed jointly by the Public Library Association (PLA) and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), both divisions of the American Library Association (ALA). The first edition was published in 2004, and it was a staple for children’s librarians. However, the second edition, released in 2011, was significantly updated. After an in-depth evaluation of the first edition, the initiative went from containing fancy vocabulary such as “phonological awareness” and “background knowledge” to recommending five simple practices: Singing, Writing, Playing, Reading, and Talking. This change represented a major shift that greatly simplified the concepts for the targeted end audience: parents and caregivers.

Children’s librarians should expect to be taken seriously, and part of that is using the technically correct terminology such as “environmental print” and “predictive language” when speaking to the library board or at a professional conference. However, what would happen if we, as librarians, mirrored ECRR’s second edition and dialed down our language in our public service? Practical suggestions and positive encouragement may resonate more with parents and caregivers, rather than an evaluation of their child’s skills in categories they may not understand. Kindergarten readiness assessment is important, and it’s valuable that KIDS is observation-based, rather than exam-based. However, the message parents and caregivers need to absorb is much simpler: PLAY.

Imaginative play is intricate and complex. Best of all, it’s natural. It doesn’t need to be assessed or quantified. As Mr. Rogers said, echoing psychologist Jean Piaget, educator Maria Montessori, and others, “Play is really the work of childhood.” Early childhood education researcher Vivian Paley concurs: “Play is the serious and necessary occupation of children; it’s not just a pleasant hobby or a frivolous means of spending nonworking hours.” She continues, “Adults impose phonics, math, reading, writing, and other tasks into a primary position in the young child’s life and set play aside as relatively unimportant.”

Play alone may not solve Illinois’s kindergarten readiness problems. However, I am suggesting that those who work with families use straightforward, conversational language and encourage play. I’m suggesting that administrators and library board members allow mess and open play in their spaces, because mess is simply a byproduct of engaged play and learning. I’m suggesting that storytimes, while having structure, incorporate fewer “lessons” and more silliness, spontaneous learning, and play. I make these suggestions because these very things will do what we’re striving for—build neural networks in the brain, develop self-regulation and social skills, and yes—improve kindergarten readiness.

So what can libraries do to lessen this huge gap? Many of the initiatives at Gail Borden are things commonly done in libraries already—developmentally-appropriate storytimes, 1000 Books Before Kindergarten, and parent/caregiver education. Here are a few more ideas about how to bring simple language and play that encourages kindergarten readiness into the library:

Countdown to Kindergarten: This program is a 6-week series that focuses on stories, songs, and activities specifically about kindergarten. This is an “own your own” event, where parents are encouraged to leave the room while their child experiences what “real kindergarten” might be like. Half of our time is play!

Week of Play: This program, developed by Coordinator of Grade School Services Tabatha Anderson, is a celebration of play through passive programming. Gail Borden offers hands-on, exploratory play that is accessible all day during the week between Christmas and New Years. For kids under kindergarten age, we’ve offered searching for magnetic letters in shredded newspaper in a water table, seek and find posters, balance beams, crawling tunnels, stackable snowmen, and more.

Messy Programs: Mess does not have to equal stress! Paint, bubbles, food coloring, shaving cream—these aren’t just fun. They provide tactile and sensory experiences that encourage learning by allowing children to discover, be curious, and be creative. Kids need these skills in kindergarten.

Art: Gail Borden’s Early Literacy Associate Paula Bosshart designed an interactive drop-in program called Preschool Picassos, in which preschoolers travel around a room to a variety of stations to engage in process art. Process art is distinct from crafting in that there is no example or “expected” end product. Kids used race cars, Legos, and even their fingers.

Getting Ready for Kindergarten Calendar: Organizations from the entire Elgin community sponsor a free yearly calendar for caregivers of preschoolers. Every month has a theme, a list of books recommended by Gail Borden staff, and ideas for play on each day of the year.

Open Play & Books in the Community: School District U46, the Elgin Partnership for Early Learning, Blue Kangaroo, and a St. Charles girl scout have partnered to develop “Language in the Laundromat,” which features off-site book and play locations designed to promote learning opportunities for children and families. How can YOU bring books and play out into non-traditional locations in your community?

Gateway-Certified Teacher Trainings: When our teachers are well-educated, our kids are well-educated. Offering quality professional development trainings for early childhood educators is essential for kindergarten readiness. Many Illinois preschool teachers need to have both DCFS credit hours and something called Gateway-certified hours. Taking the time to become a Gateways trainer will make the children’s librarian an influencer of early childhood education.

Outdoor Play: Never forget nature. Even if you don’t have an outdoor space, you can bring the outside in during all seasons. Snow science, leaf printing, water play—all engage body and brain.


This program, initiated by Gail Borden’s Director of Branch Services Ana Devine, is an invitation for newborn babies to get a library card. What better way to encourage caregivers than to get them in the library on day one? We invite baby and caregiver or family member for a mini-storytime and a tour of the department, plus a free bag of goodies donated by community partners. It’s a great time to model best practices with baby—without the fancy language.

We can’t do it alone, and we can’t make it complicated. One person, one department, one library or organization, cannot change this problem. We can work together, day by day, and offer our best so kids can be ready for school. When I first began library school, I remember thinking, “What the what is phonological awareness?” I was intimidated by the jargon. Consider it from the parent or caregiver’s perspective: Is it scarier to “Sing the ABCs with your child” or to “help your child develop phonological awareness?” I vote for ABCs all the way.

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