“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
Watching my child play with a set of wooden blocks brings a smile to my face. His mouth screws up into a determined wiggle as he tries (again!) to add the twelfth block to the unsteady stack and his eyes open wide as the stack sways and then collapses. He throws himself playfully back and makes a sound that’s a mix of delighted giggle and frustrated exasperation. Then, he begins again. This process has contained mathematical activity (shapes, magnitudes of different objects and number or quantity) and use of the scientific method (research, trial-and-error, and problem solving) without any direction from me and without any formal curriculum or predetermined “lesson plan.”
Since the introduction and implementation of government-mandated academic programs, like Common Core, there has been a passionate debate raging between politicians, who believe that they have discovered the “cure” for our lacking educational systems, and parents and educators who have some wisdom and front-line knowledge about some of the possible negative effects of prioritizing testing over explorative play, and data collection over cognitive and social-emotional growth. The Washington Post published this resignation letter from teacher Susan Sluyter, a kindergarten teacher, who explained her decision to walk away from her career with the following observation:
“When I first began teaching more than 25 years ago, hands-on exploration, investigation, joy and love of learning characterized the early childhood classroom. I’d describe our current period as a time of testing, data collection, competition and punishment. One would be hard put these days to find joy present in classrooms.”
In late October, 2015 another teacher, this time special education teacher Wendy Bradshaw, utilized social media and her own experiences as a teacher and as a new mother to share her view that (in her words):
“…the disorder is the system… which has inappropriate requirements, emphasizes disciplinary action over differentiating instruction, and values scores over meaningful teaching.”
It frightens me as a parent, and as someone who works in the early childhood education field, that the teachers who value play and question the effectiveness and mindfulness of standardized teaching are growing weary of the fight and are choosing to walk away. But I don’t blame them. Raising children is hard work. And when the groups and organizations making decisions about what education should look like have little “hands-on” experience in the field, it’s difficult to remain optimistic about their value for our children’s complete well-being. In the words of Albert Einstein: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
It has been researched and observed many times that children learn best through play. As parents, it is one of our responsibility to find a learning environment that best suits the needs of our child(ren). We should also research and learn about policy recommendations and changes suggested by our elected officials and make sure that our voices and opinions are represented.
In addition to learning, play brings a sense of contentment, joy and wonder. To those child care providers, teachers and parents who embrace the role of play in the lives of the children that they love and will continue to champion and incorporate these simple, and developmentally appropriate, practices: well done.
Looking for some imaginative play resources for your own family or early education setting? Here are a few of my favorites:
Sluyter, S., & Strauss, V. (2014, March 23). Kindergarten teacher: My job is now about tests and data — not children. I quit. Retrieved January 28, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/23/kindergarten-teacher-my-job-is-now-about-tests-and-data-not-children-i-quit/.