Children are entering groups at earlier and earlier ages – even baby groups are now available for infants barely a few months old. There are calls on all sides for universal early childhood education as a solution to the prevalence of later academic problems. At the same time, earlier thinking about the purpose and value of pre-school may be getting lost.
Once children are in groups they begin to be thought of as being in school. Being in “school” they should be “learning”, and no matter their age or developmental stage learning has come to mean the three R’s, plus mastery of other material once only expected of children in grade school. 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. It is only when children are being taught letters, numbers or other academic material that they are seen as learning. But letters and numbers are symbols and children need to experience real things before confronting the symbols
It is through play that children acquire mastery of many of the skills they will need for later academic success. Perhaps most important is the kind of emotional learning that grows out of play. Children learn through experience the realities of social engagement important to functioning in a group that we often try to teach 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.
Successful play with others also involves the ability to function cooperatively – that means accepting the ideas of others as well as one’s own. Joining several other children who are engaged in an activity, whether block building or imaginary play, can be challenging. Some children seem more easily able than others to do this.
Observing children in groups one can see a child who is having difficulty. A child may hover around the periphery of the activity he would like to join, perhaps hoping to be invited in. The next step might be to try to take part without really knowing how to do this. This may lead to an expression of annoyance or rejection by another child. Rebuffed, some children will give up and move away but others may become more aggressive and become part of the activity in a negative way by doing something disruptive. It is like a two-year-old doing something provocative to draw his mother away from the telephone.
Unfortunately, the adult in charge usually only gets to see the end of the sequence and the disrupter is the one who is reprimanded and led away. Two examples of such a scenario come to mind. In one instance a child clearly wanted to take part in another child’s construction. It ended with his knocking the whole thing down and being scolded by the adult in charge.
The same child joined a table with another child and a teacher. Unable to hear what was going on, what I saw was the child knocking off the table all the little figures that had been set up by the other child. To my surprise, now the disrupter picked up all the pieces he had knocked down and put them back where they had been.
Afterwards, I asked the teacher what she had said to bring that about. She said she asked the child if the other child looked happy or sad. He replied, “sad.” She then said she thought they could fix that by putting the pieces back and that she would help him do that. The result was that what started as a disaster ended as a positive experience for the child. It was noticeable that he then participated in the general classroom cleanup that followed without being asked.
This was a good demonstration of teaching social behavior. In a positive way, this child was helped to reflect on the effect of his behavior on others and then support was given to help the child correct his behavior. It is this kind of learning that becomes so important later on when children are required to sit at desks, listen to the teacher and focus attention on academic tasks.
Too often now, children are expected to have already mastered these skills during those early pre-school years that once were understood to provide the opportunity to develop them. We need to remind ourselves of the teaching and learning required – and the time that such learning takes.