I was so excited listening to Rae Pica’s program,” How Play Supports Brain Development”. Her two guests, both experts in the field of early learning, emphasized how play is not an option for children. Children’s brains need play like a thirsty runner needs water! Children’s brains run on play. So why would parents worry if their children play in preschool or kindergarten?
I suspect there are many reasons, including that many parents’ early memories of school include academic instruction, and perhaps their struggles with it. Parents don’t want their children to struggle and they acquire the mistaken notion that doing worksheets and flashcards will give their children an edge. They want to see their kids buckle down and learn, darn it! Play looks too, well, uh…fun.
Another reason, I suspect, is that when they shop for preschools, they run into some programs that say they are play-based, but do not know how to make play the center of learning for the children. The teachers do not have the training to scaffold children’s skills to go deeply into their interests, to pursue and develop their ideas in play. The play these parents see is not high-quality play. It is not avid, creative learning. It is just, well, let’s be frank—goofing around. Flitting from activity to activity. I know this from what my college students tell me.
The most important fact, in my mind, is that mature, high-quality play is creative. Creativity is an innate part of cognition. Once I had a pre-K student who noticed that birds seemed to poop all over the playground picnic tables. He developed a hypothesis that if he made a bird toilet, our picnic table would be cleaner. In the classroom, working for over a week, he used constructive materials (boxes, tubes, and magazine pictures) to create his bird toilet. On the seat, he glued a picture of worms to attract the birds so that they would be motivated to use the facility rather than our picnic table. In the process, he explained his contraption (oral language; cognitive development), asked others to find materials for him (social development), and through trial and error, created his invention. He tested his hypothesis outdoors. Now I would love to tell you that the birds flocked (no pun intended) to his creation, but of course, this didn’t happen. What did happen is that other children began forming ideas of inventions they thought might be needed and began creating them. The bird toilet itself was used on the playground for imaginative, if bathroom oriented, play by many children!
This boy could not have made his invention, nor could other children have taken up the idea of creating inventions, if the program had been either an academic program, or a traditional program that claimed it was play-based, but did not scaffold inventive, creative learning opportunities. In the school where I taught, teaching staff applauded and encouraged the boy’s work. They brought in, and asked parents for, boxes, tubes, tape and other materials to give the children what they needed to pursue their interests. They began reading books about birds, and bird recognition. We found nests in trees to keep an eye on. We rode the wave of creative play.
All of this was documented in picture and text in the halls. Our parents learned the benefits of these types of projects because teachers and administrators put it up where parents could see them. In Rae’s radio program, one of the guests mentioned using documentation to illustrate the learning taking place in children’s play. For me, this is a deal-breaker. Connect those standards to the documentation. Explain, in text on pictures, or narration in videos, how the play allows children to learn across all domains, and in all content areas. Keep at it. And make sure the right people (administrators, parents) have it in their faces day and night. The effort is more than worth it if more children get the opportunities to learn through the language of play.