Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Let" the Children Play - Who decides?

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A May 16 editorial in the New York Times by David Kohn  - Let The Kids Learn Through Play- cites research showing that play is a crucial vehicle for learning.  Children in more academic preschool programming showed fewer gains in 3rd grade than did children who experienced play-based curriculum. Great stuff here, but are we really so confused about this? I guess we are.

The first key word in this editorial is "let" - and there is kind of a plea here, a request.  This implies that in many contexts someone is NOT letting children learn through play.  The reality is that teachers know play is important but they get very mixed messages about what kind of play and how much play they should "let" the children engage in each day. In the NYTimes editorial, Somerville's own Nancy Carlsson-Paige calls our confusion about play a "profound misunderstanding about how children learn".  So let's unpack the confusion.

The "let" in the title of the editorial is a clue. Is the implication here that if we don't let children play, they won't be learning through play? Yes, in a way.  Schooling has become divided into "play" and "work", with play getting the short end of the stick and often relegated to minimal outside time and something children do when they aren't doing the "real" work of academic endeavors.

But, children are always learning through play or at least trying to - in fact they will attempt to play continuously.   Even when we tell them to stop playing and "get down to work".  I'd wager that much of children's misbehavior is a byproduct of children's attempts to play in situations where they are being asked not to.

Part of what we must do is broaden our definition of play - beyond the house keeping corner or what children do on a playground.
Play involves:

  • thinking
  • discovery
  • theorizing
  • exploring
  • hypothesizing
  • story-making
  • representational thought

What activities might you offer when you use this list as a guide?  Science, math, and literacy suddenly pop into the picture.  Engineering, blocks, and story telling. An early SEE blog post on 21st century skills has a similar list and rationale for play-based learning, and it can expand our thinking about play.

Two play opportunities related to science - dirt in the sensory table and
an observation opportunity involving writing and drawing.

Certainly there are lots of different kinds of play opportunities - not all play is created equal.  There are purists who will say that all play is valuable - and I don't disagree.

  • Children play to express feelings and emotions related to events in their lives.  
  • Children play to engage others.  
  • Children play to take on roles.  
  • Children play to work out conflict.

Even play that involves conflict is a message from children to adults and peers that they are working something out - and they might need help.   But there is what we might call "productive play" - play based on children's interests, supported by adults and capable peers, where children engage in discovery and exploration, connect the world of pretend to the world of reality, and develop important self regulation and executive function skills.

Without a broad definition of play that extends into multiple content areas, and is part of the inquiry process, teachers are locked into play as something that can only happen outside, in the dramatic play area, and perhaps the doll house.   What happens when we think of play as inquiry?

  • When we think of play as inquiry we open up a whole new world for children - opportunities to engage in very intentional play-based learning experiences that come from children's interests.  
  • When we think of play as inquiry we also offer teachers the opportunity to develop curriculum in the moment and over time that connects learning goals to children's interests.   

This is different than basing teaching only on the connection between learning goals to prescribed curriculum activities.  Project Approach has long offered ways to plan that integrate what are considered more "academic" subject areas and skills with children's need to discover and play. (See: Illinois Projects in Practice and The Project Approach.)

PreK and K teachers in Somerville are starting to talk about how to avoid an either/or situation where play and learning are seen as very separate activities. (See: Is my DAP the same as your DAP?)Various professional learning communities and professional development opportunities in Somerville have highlighted the relationship between self-regulation and play. While there are basic foundations for early childhood curriculum, each community and district must develop is own stance that articulates how and what children can learn.  Over the next year we will continue this conversation and the clarification, articulation of Somerville early childhood curriculum.  And we will let you play if you want to!