Significance of Play

I had the opportunity to be interviewed on Seattle's King 5 recently on the Significance of Play in Preschool.

These are the top-level questions we discussed on the Significance of Play in early years.

 I always thought that the whole point of preschool was to play. Don’t children play in preschool?

It is true isn’t it that we all imagine children playing in preschool? The traditional kindergarten classroom that most adults remember from childhood—with plenty of space and time for unstructured play and discovery, art and music, practicing social skills, and learning to enjoy learning—has largely disappeared. In recent years Kindergarten and even preschools are more academically focused on developing literacy and numeracy skills through direct didactic instruction and testing.

The value of play has been questioned by the widespread assumption promoted by smart baby products that the earlier children begin to master basic reading skills like phonics and letter recognition the more likely they are to succeed in school.

This assumption is inaccurate. Young children work hard at play. Play has been shown to lay down the foundational architecture of the brain that is essential to learning language, to becoming a good reader, a proficient mathematician, to having a rich vocabulary and to developing the love of learning, a quality considered most critical for longer term, sustained interest in learning.

What kind of play is this that lays down essential foundation for lifelong learning? Is this the same kind of play we see on the playground, at home, at a play date? What does it look like?

This play I am talking about it child-initiated play, play that is co-created by children with each other, in an environment that is carefully crafted by teachers. It is not superficial passing play, it is not play in which “anything goes” and that might deteriorate easily into chaos. It is not commonly seen on the playground, in homes or in play dates.

Instead, it is complex, make-believe play in which children collaborate with each other, create plot lines, invent, build and solve problems. In such play when children enter conflict it is seen as essential to their play, indeed to their learning. In conflict, children learn how to listen, express, understand. This kind of play is integrative. It combines many media and modalities including but not limited to storytelling, literature, child-initiated writing, physical and visual arts not just crafts, the use and immersion in a second language and music.

Teachers have a strong but subtle role to play in such play-oriented classrooms. Teachers carefully craft the environment for such play. They set out provocations in the form of open-ended, multi-use materials based on their close understanding of children’s learning patterns, emerging questions, explorations and interests.  In such classrooms, teachers observe children. They are researchers of children. They know their developmental needs and they respond to their questions. They craft an intentional curriculum that is centered on and that emerges from children’s play.

Wow! That sounds like the kind of play I might want to go out and engage right now! When children play with other players, what are they learning?

Play and learning cannot be separated. I say this to emphasize that we ought not see play as lesser than learning. In play children learn about themselves, they lay down essential cognitive, social, physical, emotional and even spiritual foundations and they gather skills.

They learn about themselves as thinkers, collaborators, problem solvers, friends – all essential ways of thinking and being. Children who engage in long duration child-initiated play in carefully crafted environments are shown to develop greater language skills, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are strong problem solvers and are able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. They have larger brains and develop more complex neurological structures than non-players. They are less aggressive and maintain better mental and physical health.

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