Learning Through Play

Intense concern in recent years with academic achievement has focused attention on what children are experiencing before they enter kindergarten. The fact is that many children are now starting “school” at ever earlier ages. Many nursery schools now have groups for two-year-old’s and those even younger.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

The good news is that the American Academy of Pediatrics, concerned about the move away from play, has released a policy statement about the power of play. Doctors are being encouraged to give parents a prescription for play during well-child visits in the first two years of life. Although describing play as resulting in “joyful discovery,” the statement reports the developmental and neurological research on play showing the connection developmentally between repetitive games such as peek-a-boo and Simon Says to such things as building impulse control and executive function.

Educators have long understood the value of play in developing the skills needed for later academic success. But it will be unfortunate if the newly discovered benefits of that connection turns play into a prescription instead of “joyful discovery.”