Should education in an early childhood classroom be academic or play-based?

Guest blog by Ruthie Walker, Assistant Principal in Pine Tree Primary school in Longview Texas.

There is a great divide what model in the best for education our youngest students. What if we can have our cake and eat it too?

STEAM Education integrated within a balanced literacy model gives students the best of both worlds.

Research show that students who are not strong readers by the end of first grade struggle for the rest of the academic careers. For early childhood educators this is a immense charge to make sure that all students regardless of background and prior exposure to formal schooling leave the first year of learning on an equal footing and read to face the challenges of a world that is quickly writing, erasing, and rewriting itself.

Pine Tree Primary School, located in Longview, Texas about an hour from the Louisiana border along Interstate 20 is facing this challenge head on. With nearly 600 prekindergarten and kindergarten students, many of whom are classified as educationally disadvantaged, are provided an education that is both academically challenging and play based. This is made possible by the collaborative efforts of all staff. As assistant principal, I have the privilege of helping to make the staff’s dreams a reality.

During the 2018-2019 school year, Pine Tree Primary began its journey to becoming a STEAM focused campus. This component is in addition to a strong balanced literacy program with daily readers and writers workshop as well as guided reading as soon as students show signs of being ready to read to no matter the age.

STEM/STEAM education has become a big deal these days. How do you make if work with students who can’t really even do school yet?

Here are some ideas we implemented:

Every teacher had a STEAM time in their master schedule that ranged from 30-45 minutes daily to ensure teachers had the time to explore how to incorporate an inquiry based focus in the classroom.


Science learning stations in each classroom as well as a science lab give students lots of hands on experience with early concepts that can be built on as students grow. We are blessed to have Ecoland, a science discovery center, developed by Region 7 Education Service Center for students to visit twice a year.


Students also had the opportunity to visit a computer lab daily as well as access to Ipads in each classroom. Students learn coding both on and off line using computers and robots.


Building challenges or what I like to call the Block Center on steroids became a staple of every classroom. Teachers believe that students spending more time building with a variety of materials has directly improved the ability to visualize during reading, writing, and mathematics. The library was turned into a makerspace integrating books, art, and engineering in one place.

A- Arts
The Art Lab is a centers based room where students explore and create using lines, colors, shapes, textures and more. It is modeled after the childrens’ room that can be visited at art museums. Fine motor skills are integrated to help students become better writers. Students attend music class at least once a week.


Hands on, problem solving occurs daily in each classroom. Students spend most of the math time each day in inquiry based tasks where they learn to draw their own conclusions about numbers rather than just being told exactly how to do everything.

Since this was our first year integrating STEAM, I would like to say we dabbled, trying to figure out what worked for us. And work it did. We send over 80% of our kindergarten students to first grade reading on grade level. This is a nearly 20% increase from the year before. Staff believes that the increase was due in part to STEAM strategies being implemented into our balanced literacy model giving students a well rounded education. Students had the chance to become risk takers in a safe environment through play which in turn created risk takers academically.

So where do we go next….who knows but I am glad I get to figure it out at the “Greatest School on Earth!”

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