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03/01/2023 09:15:59 AM


Allison Steckley, Director of Early Childhood Education

Tour and registration time is here. Each year during this time, I am reminded of what is truly important, how vital our work is and that children need to PLAY! When it comes to early childhood education, children’s play is serious business. Fun and games bring more than just joy. They are the key to helping children thrive in many complex situations.

Since young children don’t often have an opportunity to exercise choice and control, free play can be a liberating experience nurturing independence and relieving stress. Research shows that play is a way to boost the well-being of young children. As the pandemic drags on and concerns over learning loss and mental health issues escalate, play will become more important than ever as children work through concerns and explore their social and emotional selves and how they fit into a social environment.
“We have the data that proves that play changes everything. It changes attitudes, and it changes outcomes,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an expert in the role of play in learning. “Play and learning are not incompatible. That’s a false dichotomy. Play is not just wasted free time. If it’s used properly, it can be a deeply powerful tool to increase children’s learning.”

Beyond the realm of mere enjoyment, play builds bridges where creativity blossoms and critical thinking is born. Building a fort, using loose parts or engaging in an imaginative game can be a springboard to learning.

“Common sense tells us that humans learn better when they are internally motivated. We learn more when we enjoy the learning process,” said Gennie Gorback, president of the California Kindergarten Association. “Play improves memory. It allows children to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them. Children learn high-level, intangible concepts such as the laws of gravity, conservation of liquids/mass, mathematical concepts such as more or less, all through hands-on, interactive play.”

In addition to gaining cognitive skills, experts also suggest that play can help children cope with the complexities of growing up during a pandemic. Experts also suggest that play helps children cope with trauma. Play might be a path to help kids heal from the stress and strain of the last few years, some say.

“Play is an outlet for a child to relieve stress by focusing on something enjoyable,” Gorback said. “Young children need to be given the gift of time to gain the important interpersonal skills that they did not develop during isolation and lockdown. Caregivers should intentionally provide opportunities for play.”

While adults tend to associate play with pleasure, play is the cornerstone of the social-emotional learning that helps build executive function skills.

“Play is not frivolous: It enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions,” as the American Pediatric Association put it. “When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior; in the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important.”
“Children are naturally inquisitive. They have a fire in their eyes. They want to explore everything. We should not beat it out of them,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “Academic enrichment is critical, but the trick is to deliver it in a playful way. Learning should be joyful. It shouldn’t be boring. If you are just memorizing the content, there is no deep learning.”

Children who dress up and tell stories are learning how to shape a narrative, a precursor to learning to read and write, experts say. Children playing a board game where they have to count the spaces are learning about numbers and values, laying a foundation for math.
I fear that the intense focus on academic rigor in recent years has led to a decrease in playful learning. In the wake of the pandemic, play is that much more important.

Teaching through play is dynamic. Children are often more relaxed, focused and engaged during play because they enjoy it. What children learn through play they remember. Engagement is the secret sauce.

As I discuss with parents touring our school, our educators provide ample opportunity for play. They allow their students to learn organically and in meaningful ways. By providing authentic experiences and following the children’s lead, we encourage children to explore, feed their curiosity, and stoke their creativity.

Tue, May 28 2024 20 Iyar 5784