To Play Is To Learn
My opening remarks from our Welcome Back meeting: Tonight we set the stage for rest of our year. We begin a conversation that will span across the school year; a conversation focused on how we can partner together—teachers, administrators and parents—to best support your child’s learning and development. I’d like to begin that conversation deep within our shared values. I’d like to shed light on one of the most vital driving tenants of our work here at Greenhouse—the importance of play in the lives of young children.
The research is in. It is quite conclusive. Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of young children. (Milteer and Ginsburg, 2007 as cited in White, 2012) Study after study, finding after finding confirms the many benefits of play. Play is found throughout childhood across cultures, geography and even deep within the animal world. In spite of this universal truth, in spite of all the research findings, in spite of our own first-hand experiences, play is under attack. Studies show that children today play considerably fewer hours each week than their counterparts in past generations. Children spend more time in structured activities like music lessons and sport clinics and less time messing around in the dirt, making mud pies. In our attempt to “get them ready for…” or “keep them safe from…” we are denying the space, time and opportunity for children to tap into their most natural, primal instincts and desires. Policy makers, parents and even educators place their adult experiences, values and well-meaning (but ill-fated) expectations onto even our youngest children. In what can only be described as a truly false dichotomy, society has placed play in the fun, frivolous column and learning on the opposite end in the serious, important work column. But not at Greenhouse!
At Greenhouse, we hold firm that it is a child’s basic right to play, explore and discover the world around them. Moreover, we understand how children learn about themselves, others and the world through their play. It is noteworthy that while most scientists and psychologists agree to the benefits of play, there isn’t one agreed definition. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, defines it as “anything that spontaneously is done for its own sake.” (as quoted in Tippett, 2008). Others use words like intrinsically motivated or joyful. Whatever the official definition, I believe it falls under the category of “you know it when you see it.” When you watch a child at play, you know it. When you see a child lost in a pretend world of their own making, you know it is play. When you see your child’s brain on fire with discovery, you know it is play.
Play supports every area of a child’s developing brain, personality and learning. We know that play encourages flexible and creative thinking and problem solving. It encourages our children to take risks, be adventurous and try on new things. The innate desire to play burns deeply in all children; it is that magical spark of intrinsic motivation and desire to think, act, and ultimately, share your ideas with a friend. In this action we call “play”, we see children tolerate frustration, persist, and build resilience. We see them build confidence, competency and autonomy. We see them enter into and succeed in complex social relationships with their peers and other adults. They take turns, communicate their needs and hear the needs of others. And the content, dare we not forget the content! Content and skill learning is inherent to play. Literacy, language, math and science: learning is found intricately embedded in child’s play. But don’t be fooled by this “child’s play”; what is happening inside the walls of Greenhouse is definitely not trivial or easy.
Our faculty bring a wealth of professional knowledge, skill and understanding to their work with your children. Recent research supports what we know to be true; mindful, attuned adults can support and facilitate children’s learning through “guided play”. This playful approach is shown to be more beneficial to children’s learning than direct instruction (Fisher, 2011 as cited in White, 2012). Using guided play, we are able to develop more targeted learning goals by planning an inviting, interesting environment and then knowing how and when to support a child while they are engaged in play. It takes a skillful and intentional teacher to know how to effectively support guided play. On a dime, teachers need to make decisions and change roles in order to help a child’s thinking move forward. Our teachers seamlessly move through these roles and help children deepen their play and learning.
They make countless decisions each day. And those decisions begin with observation. Our teachers take time to watch your child at play. This intentional observation allows us to learn more about your child’s prior knowledge and also their approaches to learning. As an onlooker, we are observing to find understanding. We watch your child at play to find out the details of who your child is as a unique human being. We learn so much from watching how your child approaches materials or interacts with people.
While observing your child at play, a teacher might consider taking on the role of a scaffolder and intentionally place a comment into the child’s play to support a deeper engagement. She may offer a suggestion or ask the right question to move thinking ahead. That right question usually isn’t “What color is your cup?” or “How many beads did you find?” Questions that require a low level of thinking or simple recall of facts, often derail children’s deep thinking and problem solving. Instead, our teachers strive to ask questions that require deep, critical thinking like “What if…” or “Why did…” or “Tell me more…” These higher-level thinking questions provide the perfect opportunity to stretch thinking and also support young children’s ability to communicate and express their thoughts. For example, after observing children at play, a teacher might comment on her observation, “You’ve discovered that the Magna-tiles shadow is colorful.” Next, she questions, “I wonder if a wooden block’s shadow would be colorful?” The teacher may also choose to extend the thinking and encourage critical thinking by asking “Do you think colored water would have a colored shadow or a dark shadow?” At another point, a teacher may even decide to join in the play as a co-constructor and explore and discover right alongside of your child. A teacher might make this choice if she observes a child struggling with how to develop or deepen the play or if a child is frustrated with the social dynamics of play.
These opportunities for social learning are inherent to play and provide the context vital for foundational learning like the ability to take on the perspective of others, share a plan and work together.
“What do you want to build today?” “The empire state building.” “Who will put on the pointy top?”
Answering those questions with a friend requires cooperation, communication, mutual respect and negotiation. What better way to learn these vital skills then in the conflicts found authentically in social play? Direct guidance from teachers is often key to helping young children find the words for their feelings, needs and wants.
Another way teachers guide children’s play is to intentionally design their classroom environments and schedule to insure that children have plenty of opportunity to explore different types of play. Object play (one of the most basic types of play for young children) gives children the opportunity to build meaning and to find their place in the world. You might hear us refer to this type of play as “loose parts” or “manipulatives” or even “art.” Objects can be everything from blocks, to paper, to sand, to light. All objects that allow for open exploration support creative and flexible thinking, problem solving and provide a unique opportunity to express yourself.
Many of these interactions also provide the foundational skills of the vastly-popular STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) subjects; these skills are inherently present in the exploration of objects. Teachers build in learning goals with these loose parts, like in one activity where the children were asked to make a collection of loose parts and then make a balanced composition with those parts. When they were done, they were asked to draw their composition. As in much of their work, you—their parent—only gets to see the finished product: a simple drawing.
But we, as early childhood educators, know the cognitive processes that your child used to do this ‘simple drawing’. This work requires your child’s fingers to work in seamless coordination with their eyes and brain. This activity is an exercise in getting information into your brain and then back out through your fingers. The processing skills that these kids used to complete this activity—this simple drawing—are the exact same skills that will allow them to one day write words. This skill is called “visual-motor integration” and it plays a role in every intelligence test given to our applying-out 4 year olds; it is part of the G&T test and the Hunter test. Was that activity test prep or a creative art experience? Were the kids practicing skills or having fun? Were they learning or playing? Actually, it is both! And it is what Greenhouse does best! We learn through play.
In additional to object play, our environments support young children’s opportunity to engage in pretend or fantasy play. Pretend play includes everything from symbolic play of a 2 year old to deep, socio-dramatic play of preschoolers. There are volumes of research findings that support the learning opportunities inherent in pretend play. While pretending, children get to exert control (in a life where control is often held by others!). They regulate their behaviors, take on roles of the important adults in their lives, stretch their creativity, and use complex language. When children pretend they inhibit their impulses, improve their working memory and build their cognitive flexibility. Because socio-dramatic play is so inherently reliant on interaction between people, it provides the ideal place for children to practice navigating complex social interactions.
Lastly, physical play is possibly the most endangered form of play in school and society (Pellegrini, 2005 as cited in White, 2012). Young developing bodies (and brains!) need physical activity! They need to run, jump, climb, fall and tumble. They need to navigate through the natural world in all of its uncertainties (and not just move through sculpted, measured, “safe” play equipment). In these experiences a child’s brain and sensory systems are fully active and engaged. When a child’s full body, brain and senses are active you see a deep, unbridled attention, focus and joy. One researcher referred to physical activity as “cognitive candy” (Medina, 2016) for young children. The brain enjoys full body play as much as a sweet tooth enjoys candy! But not only does the brain come alive in full body play, the most current research is showing us that vigorous body play actually even improves executive functioning and cognition! It seems relatively easy to understand; imagine the problem solving one must use to make your developing body function and coordinate in a specific way that actually makes a tricycle move forward! Imagine the brain functioning that is required! Imagine the firing of the synapses that occur when you are jumping across an uneven surface.
In addition to obvious physical benefits of this play, you are using every one of your sensory systems along with multiple cognitive thinking skills as you move your body through air, judge the distance between logs, and manage your own risk. This is not frivolous—this is cognitive learning—important, joyful, cognitive, full-body learning!
Whether playing alone or with peers, whether manipulating objects, dappling in the creative process, slaying dragons or climbing to the top of the mountain, faculty at Greenhouse hold a deep understanding and value of the importance of play to the whole child’s growth and development. We vow to protect and honor our children’s right to play, wonder, pretend, tinker and explore. We know that play is not the opposite of learn. Indeed, quite the contrary; to play is to learn.
Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D. G., & Berk, L. (2010). Playing Around in School: Implications for Learning and Educational Policy. Oxford Handbooks Online. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195393002.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195393002-e-025
Medina, J. (n.d.) Brain Rules: Physical activity is cognitive candy. Retrieved July 11, 2016 from http://brainrules.blogspot.com/2016/07/physical-activity-is-cognitive-candy.html
Milteer R. and Ginsburg, K. (2012). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e204
Tippett, K. (2014). Transcript: Stuart Brown – Play, Spirit, and Character. Retrieved July 11, 2016 from http://www.onbeing.org/program/stuart-brown-play-spirit-and-character/transcript/6359
White, R. (2012) The Power Of Play: A Research Study on Play and Learning. Minnesota Children’s Museum. http://www.childrensmuseums.org/images/MCMResearchSummary.pdf