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What is Play?

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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dramatic play

I recently spoke with the new director of a “Religious Exempt” preschool that wanted to improve her school. It had been grossly neglected, both by the church in which it was housed, and by the former director. The current director had workers fix the holes in the walls, clean dirt from floors, and install a sink with running water for the toddler changing area. Yes, in Virginia, if your school is religiously exempt, you do not have to insist on washing hands after changing a diaper. It is fully up to the discretion of the director.

What impressed me was that this director, overseeing a staff of women who were not required to have training or experience in early childhood development, wanted to find a way to open a discussion about this question: What is play? I applaud her for this!

One would expect to need such a discussion in an unlicensed school. But these questions are good ones for everyone in education. There are schools that say they are play-based. They give children the opportunity to be children (a terrific start); to be with each other in play experiences both outside and in. Teachers watch them play, and intervene when there is conflict. Then the “curriculum” intervenes!  Themes are handed down from on high: farm animals; community helpers; life cycles; and “all about me”. Lessons are constructed. Crafts are implemented. And play takes a back seat to “learning.” These experiences are required, not optional. So play goes out of the window.

Dr. Peter Gray, in The Value of Play, defines play as “an expression of freedom”. It is intrinsically motivated and freely chosen. In a play situation among children, players choose, but they can also quit. My young friend at the water table with other children plays with materials we have provided: Tubing, funnels, CVC pipes, and turkey basters. Through daily experimentation of his choosing, he discovers that inverting the baster in the water, and connecting it to rubber tubing with a funnel at the top, creates a water pump. Pouring water into the funnel, then squeezing the baster, makes the water come out of the funnel like a geyser! He eventually stops playing in the water table. Being able to stop is part of play. If compelled to continue, according to Dr. Gray, play would cease to exist.

Play is not something children (or adults) do apart from work. Play is a necessary part of work. Play invites imagination to participate. Play may have rules, but those rules are agreed upon by the players (as anyone who has watched fours play "soccer" knows!). Play is intrinsically motivating. If your learning environment includes many opportunities for active collaboration and playful learning, with adults who understand how to ask good questions (open-ended, we say in the trade), you won’t need to use stickers to reward children for doing what you want them to learn to do. They will learn to do and understand much more than you can imagine.

What will this director do to initiate the discussion of play? I hope she will invite her teachers to play alongside children, and ask questions. I hope she will provide learning opportunities for them to advance their understanding of how children learn. Because they learn through play.

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Gail teaches Early Childhood Education as an Adjunct Associate Professor for Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest community college systems in the country. She is a popular trainer in the DC area, leading workshops on such topics as Engaging, Arts-Based and Outdoor Learning, and Guiding Behavior. She is a member of the Virginia Community College Peer Group which collaborates with the Virginia Department of Social Services to train and license childcare professionals throughout the state. Her blog on BAM's EdWords is referenced in several arts websites, and is used in Early Childhood courses throughout Virginia. She is also a member of NAREA, the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance. You can contact her for more information about Professional Development opportunities. 


Gail lives and works in Northern Virginia. Her special interests include arts-integration, play, Reggio Emilia, music and yoga. 

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Guest Friday, 09 December 2016