You know, it’s really hard nowadays for a child to simply be a child. There’s so much pressure to perform academically, that Kindergarten has become the new first grade and preschool has become the new Kindergarten.
Parents get caught up in the frenzy, worried that their children will be “behind” by the time they get to Kindergarten. They don’t realize there is a simple solution to it all… PLAY.
To those of us who are early childhood educators, this is no surprise. But for others, and even some well-intentioned teachers, there is a flawed mindset that play and academics are unrelated and that one must take a backseat to the other.
It is this kind of thinking that is not only taking the fun out of childhood, but also interfering with learning.
So, how can we get back on track? Well, first of all, it needs to be understood that play and learning are not two different things. Instead, play and learning work together. They complement each other on many levels. Research tells us that creative, imaginative, and experience-based play is directly linked to strong cognitive and academic outcomes.
For example, making a tunnel and bridge with unit blocks supports measuring, engineering, and mathematical thinking. Sitting at a table with a math worksheet won’t engage the child’s mind or result in the same degree of learning.
Adults need to relax and realize that a play-based environment is going to produce the desired results without compromising learning goals.
Next, it is important to move away from use-specific or “gimmicky” toys, to those that are more open-ended. For example, if we set out a pre-assembled race car track, the child will drop a car onto the track and watch it roll to the other end. But, if we provide an assortment of interlocking blocks and a box of little cars, she can build her own track- or garage, or any number of things. We are widening her opportunities for creativity, as well as letting her make a symbolic connection between the block structure and a real racetrack.
By providing this type of open-ended play with simple materials, children regain the use of their imaginations and ingenuity. They can begin to see the possibilities in a box of assorted “stuff,” rather than relying on or being entertained by a toy maker’s idea.
While on the topic of open-ended, it’s important to remember to ask open-ended questions as children play. When an adult walks up to a child who is painting at the easel and says, “That’s a beautiful building,” he has effectively shut down that child’s creative train of thought. There is no further conversation or explanation needed. And, it may never be known if, perhaps, it was never meant to be a building at all, but something entirely different!
Instead of trying to manipulate children in a specific direction and kill their originality, it is far better to start the conversation with, “Tell me about your painting.” This gives a child the chance to explain the process and reveal what it may actually be- or that it is nothing at all in particular.
Let us be reminded that children are born learners. If the environment is intentionally prepared for them to learn through their play and social relationships, they certainly will. We need to observe and listen to children to determine their interests- what engages them. Then, we can set up the environment to support successful learning.
There also needs to be less pressure and more time given, so they can be fully involved in what they’re doing. I’m always distressed when I’m in a child care program and someone blows a whistle or announces that everybody has to change centers every 15 minutes. What if a child wants to spend another 15 minutes with his building set, because he just figured out what he wanted to build? How is this practice encouraging sustained attention and problem-solving?
Another attention-buster is a cluttered classroom. With some teachers, there is a tendency to overload the room with toys and activities, in hopes of curbing boredom. However, this can have quite the opposite effect! Too many things in the environment can be overwhelming to children. This is an example of when less is more. When there is less in the room, a child can stay focused for a longer time and more intensely.
So, what is ultimately important here is to shift towards slowing down, paying attention to what we are providing for young children, and finding ways to best support their play experiences. In so doing, we give them opportunities for rich, cognitive, social, and emotional learning- everything they need and more!