Thursday, November 18, 2010

Serious Play

PLAY: the heart of an early childhood classroom. Vital to learning. Vital to childhood.

In a recent class project, I had the opportunity to defend play in a pre-K classroom to an adult who comes in the room and wants to know why the children are "just playing."

I'm glad you asked! My response:

When you describe the children as “just playing,” I feel you may be defining the word “play” as a time filler between sessions of “real learning” with a pencil and a worksheet. An alternate definition of play I offer is that play is a crucial process that contributes to learning throughout the life span, and motivates learning in addition to contributing to cognitive development (1). Simply put, play the most powerful and efficient way for children to learn and remember what they learned (2).
Serious benefits await children who engage in serious play. According to researchers Bodrova and Leong (3), play builds foundational skills and complex cognitive activities, such as memory, self-regulation, distancing and decontextualization, oral language abilities, symbolic generalization, successful school adjustment, and better social skills.
Children at play not only hone these cognitive abilities, but they also develop specific literacy, math, and social studies skills that connect directly with Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning: Comprehensive Standards for Four-Year-Olds (4). As these standards astutely note, four-year-olds have serious work to do. But it can be accomplished with joy, enthusiasm, and engagement; in short, through play.
I integrate play with standards through careful observation and documentation of the children’s self-directed play. When I observe recurring themes, I develop whole group and small group activities to deepen their base of knowledge, their understanding, and their mastery of skills. I organize my classroom so that every play activity builds literacy, number sense, social interaction, and information about the world around them. Their dramatic, constructive, and exploratory play is richly layered with the core standards. They are building the skills they need to excell in their school careers and in their lives.
Play is an even more important component of a young child’s school day than it was in the past, because the nature of children’s play at home has changed; that is, not all children come to my classroom knowing how to play, and I must teach them how. “Nowadays, young children spend less time playing with their peers and more time playing along, graduating from educational toys to video and computer games” (3). When I see children struggling to play cooperatively and constructively, I scaffold their abilities with well-placed play props, questions to get them thinking, and interventions when needed to help them develop these essential skills.

1. Myck-Wayne, J. (2010). “In Defense of Play: Beginning the Dialog About the Power of Play.” Journal of Young Exceptional Children, 2010, 13: 14.

2. Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Da Capo Press: Cambridge, MA.

3. Bodrova, E., and Leong, D.J. (2004). “Do Play and Foundational Skills Need to Compete for the Teacher’s Attention in an Early Childhood Classroom?” Spotlight on Young Children and Play. National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C.

4. Viriginia Department of Education (2007). "Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning: Comprehensive Standards for Four-Year-Olds." Retrieved on November 15, 2010 from

1 comment:

  1. Amen! This is beautiful and brilliantly said.