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Four-year-old Zain Siddiqui settles in at his first day of all-day kindergarten at Fraser Mustard Learning Academy in Toronto on Sept. 3, 2013.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's elementary school teachers say they are concerned that the province's ambitious rollout of full-day kindergarten has resulted in overcrowded classrooms and few resources on how play-based learning is supposed to work.

In a letter to Jim Grieve, assistant deputy minister of the early learning division, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said classrooms that were once built for 20 students are now holding more than 30 four- and five-year-olds.

Educators, the union says, are finding it difficult to set up play-based activities in these overcrowded rooms. The idea behind play-based learning, the centrepiece of the new full-day kindergarten program, is that young children learn better by moving around and experimentation rather than sitting behind a desk all day.

The ETFO letter also states that teachers and early childhood educators are finding "large gaps" in resources on play-based learning reaching the classroom. The focus in recent years has been on boosting literacy and numeracy scores, and the introduction of play-based learning has meant a real shift in thinking for many teachers entering kindergarten classrooms.

"We want it to work. We are just saying there are things that need to happen for it to work to its full potential," Susan Swackhammer, first vice-president at ETFO, said in an interview Friday. Ms. Swackhammer has twin grandchildren who are in a full-day kindergarten class of 31 kids.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Liz Sandals said the government is reviewing ETFO's letter and "will consider their concerns closely."

ETFO's concerns come as the government looks to roll out all-day kindergarten to every student by this fall. The minority Liberals have staked their reputation on the success of the program, directing more than $1.45-billion in capital costs to expand and retrofit schools, on top of millions in operating dollars. Ontario's full-day learning program incorporates two years of a revamped curriculum for junior and senior kindergarten, and emphasizes play-based learning. Critics characterize it as an expensive form of government-backed daycare.

Other provinces, including B.C. and PEI, offer all-day kindergarten, but at the senior kindergarten level only. The Alberta Tories have delayed the program because of fiscal pressures.

The Manitoba government is resisting calls to fund all-day kindergarten, saying the research does not support funding such a costly program. Some school boards in Manitoba offer all-day kindergarten.

The research on full-day kindergarten is mixed. The Ontario government released findings of nearly 700 children in September showing students in full-day kindergarten are better prepared for school, show strong language development and better communication and social skills. Some research into similar programs has shown that the beneficial effect fades, although debate continues.

In Ontario, provincial standardized testing and graduation rates will show whether the positive benefits of the program can be sustained.

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