Date of Award

May 2024

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Urban Education

First Advisor

Leanne M Evans

Committee Members

Margaret Bartlett, Tania Mertzman, Crystasany Turner


Kindergarten has evolved from a foundational space aimed at nurturing a joy of learning to regimented classrooms, crowded with expectations, accountability systems, and standardized practices. Because of these demands, kindergarten has been deemed the “new first grade” (Bassok et al., 2016; Brown et al., 2020; Miller & Almon, 2009). The changing nature of kindergarten has created tension for some early childhood educators as they strive to balance the push for academic preparation through didactic methods (Brown et al., 2020; Miller & Almon, 2009; Nicolopoulou, 2010; Pappano, 2010) and their pedagogical beliefs around play supporting developmental outcomes for young learners (Bongiorno, 2018; Bubikova-Moan et al., 2019; Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2015; Miller & Almon, 2009; Nicolopoulou, 2010; Rand & Morrow, 2021; Stremmel et al., 2019; Yogman et al., 2018; Zosh et al., 2022). This is especially true in urban school settings, where denying children access to play and recess have been deemed “social justice issues” (Jarrett, 2013; Jarrett et al., 2015) that perpetuate inequitable, deficit perspectives of young learners. This phenomenological case study aimed to better understand the experiences of educators with their implementation of play-based learning in urban kindergarten classrooms. The intent of this research was to determine the pedagogical beliefs the educators held with regard to play, the extent to which they incorporated play-based learning in their classrooms, and the alignments and/or tensions that existed between the educators and the schools in which they were employed. Through analysis of detailed questionnaire responses, individual interview transcripts, and focus group conversation, three findings emerged from this inquiry: a) through their experiences, educators developed orientations as advocates for play; b) educators were deeply committed to their pedagogical beliefs about the importance of play and the foundations of kindergarten; and c) educators took action to balance the honoring of childhood through play with expected kindergarten outcomes. A model of critical play pedagogy is offered as an example of a specific representation of how play can be imagined through a critical perspective.

Available for download on Wednesday, November 20, 2024