Kindergarten and pre-primary children are missing out on playing with blocks or dressing up to play imaginary games because of increased academic pressure in many WA schools, early childhood educators have warned.
Four early childhood groups have banded together to raise concerns that the growing emphasis on formal teaching methods and pressure on schools to improve literacy and numeracy test results have squeezed hands-on play out of the early years' timetable.
Early Childhood Australia WA president and Curtin education lecturer Jenny Jay said many schools - public and private - had reduced or removed the time available for children to choose their own play activities such as building with blocks, dressing up or digging in the sandpit.
Instead, four and five-year-old children were doing worksheets at desks, sitting in front of interactive whiteboards or being rotated around formal activities on a rigid schedule run by teachers.
Dr Jay said this earlier-is- better formal teaching approach to improve test results in later years missed the point children needed hands-on play to develop skills needed for future academic achievement.
"We're not talking about free-for-all play, where children are just left to run wild," she said. "A skilful teacher will set up the environment so a child can play and get the learning the teacher wants them to get."
The alliance, which includes the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education WA, the Early Years in Education Society and the Early Childhood Educators Association, has released a discussion paper which says the trend away from play-based learning could affect children's long-term emotional health.
Other reasons for formalising learning in the early years include pre-primary becoming the first compulsory year of education, misinterpretation of curriculum changes and parents' expectations.
"Increasingly, it is being observed that long blocks of formal, teacher-directed instruction begins in some schools as early as kindergarten, four years prior to children completing their first NAPLAN test, further devaluing play-based learning during the formative years," the paper said.
Education Minister Peter Collier said there was strong evidence that exposing children to academic learning in kindergarten had long-term benefits.
"Story corners, blocks and imagination areas are still alive and well and play-based learning is still part of our balanced approach," he said.