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Why Is It Hard to Understand Learning Through Play?

Posted by on in Movement and Play
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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.

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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. 

  • Guest
    Linda Monday, 21 March 2016

    While those bird activities may have started with the a child's observations, I'm not entirely convinced that this was "play based" as much as "project based." One of the reasons adults who are not educators have difficulty understanding the importance of play is that it is so incidental--unplanned learning. Adults cannot really measure what incites children gain from their play. Building blocks offer so much more than mere stacking. It's not possible to see the child's inner narrative so what the child may be gaining in simple engineering/physics incites may differ vastly from another child's imaginative focus. It's hard to discern the outcomes from play--let alone measure them so it looks like a waste of time rather than the most valuable use of a child's time.

  • Gail Multop @gailmult
    Gail Multop @gailmult Monday, 21 March 2016

    I totally understand what you are saying. When I wrote this, I realized that I was addressing the part of play that is cognitive, such as playing with ideas, rather than the sub-category of play, pretend play. Playing with ideas can inspire a project, which is what you noticed. Much pretend play was interlaced with this "project", though. Children were shrieking across the playground, pretending to be eagles and falcons (we had read books about those birds). They created bird families. Parents came to pick up on the playground, and they stayed to watch. They noticed that the children used vocabulary from the books we read, and that the children nested in an eerie (flapping and shrieking :). So documenting all of this was helpful, and keeping an open-door, open-playground policy allowed parents to see that learning took place in play. I hope that clarifies...

  • Guest
    Christina Monday, 04 April 2016

    I think you are absolutely correct that parents do understand the importance of play because they do not see intentional, high-quality play happening in the schools. I also believe that they might feel the pressure of upcoming standardized tests (in later grades) and hear all this news about how the U.S isn’t on top. Parents do not have the education that play is important, or might not understand what sociodramatic play is. As a future K teacher next year, I intent to explain (and show and prove) why play will develop their child’s social and emotional, cognitive, and physical development which will prepare them for schooling in years to come. There could very well be some backlash, but I think it needs to be made clear that a quality teacher will differentiate every aspect of the day for their students, especially including play. I have been teaching for 7 years now, and it took me the first few years to learn how to guide play so that children are able to own their learning and discover the world around them, but now that I am confident in what I am doing and what the children are learning, I know that play is an urgent need for our youngest learners- especially in a time when they might not be involved in dramatic play and projects at home.

  • Gail Multop @gailmult
    Gail Multop @gailmult Tuesday, 05 April 2016

    Good for you, Christina!

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