Play Essential to Early Learning
Black Enterprise Magazine January-March 2019 Issue

(Image: File)

According to a study published online May 18, 2015, preschool children in day care centers need more physical activity than they are currently engaged in. In the May 17, 2015, edition of the Sunday New York Times, an opinion piece discussed the trend toward formal, teacher-centric education in early learning settings, which is crowding out time for children to play. Quoted in the piece is Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who described the trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.”

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If formal learning may be harmful to young learners, what does healthful preschool play look like? A 2014 article in the Times describes it this way:

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.

The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).

For more about the importance of play in early childhood, even if it doesn’t look (to adults) as if it has any purpose to it, read the summary and recommendations of Crisis in the Kindergarten from the Alliance for Childhood. You can read the full report here.