Learning Through Play

The controversy about “redshirting” – holding your children back from kindergarten – has focused attention on the whole issue of academic competition.  The idea is that a child will be advantaged by his or her greater learning ability as one of the oldest in the class.  Actually, it is quite clear that children vary in their readiness to learn certain material, and age itself is not always the significant factor.

But there is another aspect to this intense concern with academic achievement that relates to the question of what children are experiencing before they enter kindergarten at whatever age.  The fact is that many children are now starting “school” at ever earlier ages.  Many nursery schools now have groups for children who are two years old, and groups for children even younger are common.

At the same time earlier thinking about the purpose and value of pre-school may be getting lost.  Somehow, once children are in “school”, no matter what their age or developmental readiness, the idea has taken hold that they should be “learning”.  And learning has come to mean the three Rs, plus mastery of other material once only expected of children in grade school.  The pressure for academic success increasingly pervades all of childhood.

Unfortunately, a consequence of this shift is that the importance and value of play is no longer fully appreciated.  It is as if learning and play are not only different, but opposed: if children are playing, they are not learning.  You can often hear criticism voiced about nursery school or other pre-school groups as, “Oh, they just play there.”  It is only when children are being taught letters, numbers or other academic material that they are seen as learning.

Play has been called children’s work, and children are working at mastering many things through play.  A colleague once said that you can’t learn the letter A without first  experiencing an apple.  What she meant was that letters are symbols and that a child needs to experience real things before confronting the symbols.  It is that kind of experience that helps prepare children to learn to read and write.  It is that kind of experience that children often are having when they play.

I saw a wonderful example while observing a young pre-school group.  The children were looking in a book at a picture of a crescent moon.  One child said the picture was of a banana.  The teacher explained that actually it was the moon, and that the name for that moon shape is crescent.  The child who called it a banana disagreed and again said that it was a banana.  Another child close by was listening but said nothing.  Later, during snack he took a bite of his cookie, and then studying what was left of the cookie he suddenly called out, “Look, a crescent!”  And that was exactly the shape the rest of the cookie was in.  That is the connection between the apple and the A.

Perhaps just as important, if not more, is the kind of emotional learning that grows out of play.  Children learn through experience the realities of social engagement that we sometimes try to teach them abstractly as rules or manners.  They learn that if they insist on it always being their turn, no one will want to play with them.  If they keep taking things another child is playing with, they may find themselves being avoided. 

Playing in groups, children develop strategies for mastering feelings of anger or frustration.  At the doll house, play kitchen or block corner, they work out solutions to conflict situations, sometimes with adult help, many times on their own.  Playing successfully with others requires mastering self-control.  This, too, is a learning process for which there are many opportunities in pre-school settings.

I am always impressed when observing a pre-school group how over time young children master waiting on line to wash up at the sink after an art project.  The teacher pastes a colored paper fish, or some other recognizable shape on the floor and that becomes the mark for the first child on line to stand on.  It takes real work, first to learn what is expected and then to manage one’s body and impulses while waiting for your turn.  It also takes help from an adult who understands the learning required and the time that such learning takes. 

It is this kind of mastery that becomes so important later on when children are required to sit at desks, listen to the teacher, and focus their attention on academic tasks.  Too often now, children are expected to have already mastered these skills during those earliest pre-school years which once were understood to provide the opportunity to develop them.   

We understand many of the factors that lead to academic success.  Let’s not lose sight of the early childhood experiences – of which play is such an important part – that prepare children later to achieve that success.

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