I started teaching kindergarten in Beijing last year, and I've been thinking more about the best approach to teaching young children.

Back in Canada, we used the full-day, play-based method for kindergarten. Here in Beijing — specifically at the school at which I work we do not have a set program for kindergarten; it is up to the teacher (or team) to decide what works best. In past years, it was very structured with standalone time for teaching phonics skills, specific skills for reading and writing, and math. Everything was separate and had a specified block of time.

This left me wondering, what is the best way to organize a kindergarten classroom especially one that is full of English language learners? Is the play-based approach that I was taught the best way? Was a more structured schedule with specific times for math, reading and writing better?

I don't have the answers, but I have done a lot of research. I've experimented quite a bit within my classroom this year, and I can explain what I've seen and tried. Here are my experiences and the knowledge I have gained about each approach.

Play-based approach

What is it?

On many occasions, I have heard that people think this means the children just "play all day." They insinuate that play is not important, is not planned or guided and is chaotic, loud and crazy.

Play-based instruction actually means that children are engaged in meaningful and planned play, designed by the teacher(s) to develop social, motor and cognitive skills. Through play, children learn how to interact positively with one another, develop language skills, solve problems, develop their imagination and creativity, and so much more.

There are still rules and structure, even though it may not look that way to an untrained eye. I like to call it controlled chaos. The teacher's role is to observe, scaffold, participate in the play (this is probably one of the most important aspects), supervise, ask questions, guide and encourage.

Through this approach, students are driven by their interests. Literacy and/or math fall into place naturally. For example, if the students are playing "store" where someone is buying or selling items, the teacher can suggest creating signs that they've seen at a store, print off play money to integrate math, etc.

How does it work?

This is a fantastic approach to learning, and this is one of the best ways for students learning English (or another language). It is completely student-centered.

It works best if class sizes are small, and if there is more than one trained adult in the room (I would say two or three is best). It works well in classrooms with ELLs because every child knows how to play, and they can develop their language through social interactions in a natural way.

Inquiry-based approach

What is it?

This type of approach is based on the interests of your students. It is not based off every interest of every student, but it works well with interests like dinosaurs, space, robots, anything dealing with nature, etc. It doesn't work extremely well with interests like Batman or Barbie or similar things not to say it's impossible to spark a deep, educated inquiry solely based on Barbie, but it would be a bit difficult.

Students are guided based on their interests to ask questions and find answers through exploration and experimentation. It is a hands-on approach that works well alongside the play-based approach, and they are often found side-by-side.

Students ask questions, and investigate the why and how of the world around them. For example, why can you see stars at night but not during the day? How do flowers grow? Through their discovery, they learn the answers.

How does it work?

An inquiry-based approach is probably my favorite method. It is student-centered, and it is driven by questions and independent exploration. The teacher's role is much like the role in a play-based approach, to guide and scaffold the learning that takes place.

This approach works well in a classroom that has access to a lot of materials and resources, since the inquiry is not planned by the teacher initially. The teacher observes the children at play for opportunities to strike up an inquiry.

For example, if a large number of students are always at the water table, the teacher can add items to the water table to provoke further interest. They may add different-sized containers to lead an inquiry into volume and pose questions such as, "Which container holds the most water?" The teacher can add items to a table, and ask, "Which ones will float? Sink?"

This approach also works well for ELL students as they are guided through their interests, but I have experienced a bit of frustration with ELLs because of the language that goes along with inquiry. If this is able to be done with 50 percent of the new language, and 50 percent of the native language, this can work wonderfully.

Full day or half day?

What is it?

This is pretty straightforward. Full-day programs have the students attending school for a full school day (usually 7-8 hours), and half-day programs have the students going home either before or after lunch.

How does it work?

This is entirely dependent upon the school's specific program and the individual needs of each child. Some children are not ready for a full day at 4-5 years of age, and some are.

Personally, I like the full-day program because children have more time to interact with a class full of children their age, there is more time to engage in play or inquiry that may not be accessible at home, and it prepares them for future grades and gets them comfortable being in a school setting. Again, it might not work for certain children.

Full-day programs for ELLs are definitely better. They become fully immersed in the language they are learning and have more opportunities to pick it up. My students in the full-day program both last year and this year were speaking more English by the end of the year than those who were half-day (with no English support at home).

Of course, this depends on many factors, such as whether English is spoken at home, the development of each child, and how much speaking English is a priority in your classroom. I find that when English is not forced, children are more comfortable and interested in using it.

What is best?

There is no definitive answer to this. In my classroom, I do a bit of everything. It really depends on your teaching style, the children in your class, the materials/resources, class size and classroom size, the number of trained teachers in your classroom, and a million other factors.

I am constantly trying to move more toward a fully inquiry-based approach that includes meaningful play. I am part of a school that incorporates curriculum as well as the Primary Years Program (PYP). This is an inquiry-driven program, but the inquiry is set out by the teachers through provocations to spark interest.

I am not a huge advocate of following one specific program by the book. I really enjoy reading about a variety of different programs and picking pieces of it apart to see what works with my students and my philosophy as a teacher.

I also don't think you can have a set routine or set structure year to year. With students constantly changing and changes to programs and relevant research, it is my advice to mix it up, try and experiment.

Don't force the children to speak English, let them learn at their own pace with a gentle push a step further. Figure out what works with your students and go with it.