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Madison Metropolitan School District

Enriching Play-Based Learning: Inside Madison's Vibrant 4K Programs

Enriching Play-Based Learning: Inside Madison's Vibrant 4K Programs

Four-year-old Kia had a very busy morning. First, she walked to the post office to mail a card to a friend, proudly pronouncing each letter aloud as she addressed the envelope. She counted the dollar bills she handed to the cashier – one, two, three, four, five bright green paper bills, numbered in marker and decorated with a butterfly stamp.

Next, she made her way to the local craft studio, where she reminded friends how to safely use scissors as they nimbly threaded their own necklaces. 

After, Kia went to work as an architect and engineer, building an entire house in just minutes, complete with a rainbow Magna-Tile roof. 

In Julia Peterson’s four-year-old kindergarten (4K) class at Lincoln Elementary, these enriching play-based learning activities are so engaging that the four walls of the classroom feel limitless, a space where every single student can thrive.

MMSD launched its 4K programs in 2011 with about 600 students. Today, more than 1,400 students are enrolled at 27 school sites and partnered Early Care & Education Sites throughout the city. 

The district’s 4K program is tuition free to families, partially aided through state funding. Wisconsin state law counts each 4K learner as “half” of a student, regardless if that student attends a full-day or half-day program; that means each 4K student only receives 50 percent of funding from the state compared to a K-8 student. To make up for the budget gap, MMSD has invested $3.1 million of its budget into 4K education since 2011. This investment is key in ensuring all students have access to quality early learning and early literacy experiences.

“As we know, access to these early learning experiences is not equitable and barriers exist for many populations,” Peterson said. “High-quality learning environments build on a child's early learning by providing them with additional language, literacy and math development, social and emotional skill development, access to healthy food, sensory experiences, music, art, science, outdoor learning, structure and a predictable routine.” 

In 2021, MMSD expanded its 4K offerings to include full-day 4K, which has shown to positively impact students’ educational trajectory throughout their K-12 education and beyond. Currently, there are 626 full-day 4K participants, 66 percent of which are students of color. 

Next year, three school-based 4K sites will offer classes for Spanish-speaking students, in addition to Dual-Language Immersion 4K programming at Nuestro Mundo Elementary. 

Peterson’s diverse 4K classroom allows for developmentally appropriate conversations about race, social justice, equality, and disabilities, an important part of early learning environments.

“The benefits of young children participating in a diverse early learning environment is they learn at an early age to respect, value and expect language differences, ability differences, and different perspectives,” Peterson said. “The community feeling in 4K is strong. We are a school family where everyone deserves to be seen, reflected, heard, and respected. A place where everyone belongs.”

The play-based learning centers allow for this natural collaboration and connection, as the students can bounce from station to station on their own, playing with different classmates throughout the day. 

The centers also offer students the chance to learn multiple types of skills, and expand on their existing interests while also building confidence to try something new. For instance, one student who routinely plays with blocks may spark a new interest when they see a different  set up at the sensory table, or a number scavenger hunt, or painting.   

4K student sits at desk and smiles during craft

“4K isn't about getting kids ready for kindergarten, per say, but it's about supporting them where they are, and their continued progress across all developmental areas,” Peterson said. She referenced a sentiment from famed educator Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, who suggests that kids don't need to be ready for kindergarten – kindergarten needs to be ready for the kids.

As a former first grade teacher, second grade teacher, and instructional coach across her 25 years in MMSD, Peterson knows how impactful 4K can be. 

“I'm never quite sure how much about 4K my students will remember about our year together,” Peterson said. “My hope is that they carry with them their sense of wonder, love for learning, pride in who they are and their unique gifts and talents, confidence to put effort into accomplishing something challenging, empathetic prosocial skills, and joy…the joy is everything.”

Enrollment for MMSD 4K programs for the 2024-2025 school year opened Feb. 26. Learn more about the locations and offerings of 4K on our website.