Why We Play
Play: Essential for Early Learners
By Joy Ludwig, Head of Lower School
Time for Play
One step into the early childhood wing known as the “KinderWoods” and “Pre-K Trail” at DC reveals students busy at work and play. In fact, many have long recognized that play is the “work” of learning for our youngest students. Four and five year old children busily role playing in the classroom grocery store are learning how to manage pretend money as they price, pay for and make change for the many “customers” who frequent their store. Nearby, “skyscrapers” are being erected and cars cruise down a bustling “freeway” as students imagine and construct whole communities complete with rural, suburban and city life. This kind of unstructured play that has long been the bedrock of early childhood programs in America is slowly being displaced in an effort to promote literacy at younger and younger ages. We believe these two ideas of learning through play and providing an intellectually challenging early childhood program are not mutually exclusive. Experienced educators recognize that early literacy skills and developing number sense, as well as other foundational early childhood concepts, can and should be taught purposefully through play.
The Joy of Learning
Play is universal to human growth and development. It is the means by which children make sense of their learning experiences. Recent research conducted by the University of Virginia revealed a general shift between 1998 and 2010 away from child-selected free play activities toward more teacher-directed literacy instruction. And yet, when one looks at how young children are taught in Finland, a country known for its strong performance on international achievement tests, it is clear that a seemingly opposite emphasis is placed on preserving a sizeable portion of the day for play. In Finland, time is given for both free and unstructured play, as well as play that is guided and more pedagogical in nature. The Finns have learned that play is a means for students to learn with joy - keeping with the Finnish saying,
Those things you learn without joy, you will forget easily.
Play as the Precursor to Reading
That is not to say that formal instruction does not take place or that learning objectives take the back burner to block building. Students participate in pre-reading instruction every time they clap out a syllable to a new word, sing a song about a new letter sound, or recognize letters to a sound they hear. (Walker, 2015), Teachers know the prerequisite skill to learning to read is phonemic awareness, and much time is spent on developing these essential skills through playful activities.
Readiness is key to growing strong readers. At DC, experienced pre-K and kindergarten teachers are knowledgeable in recognizing and promoting reading readiness. Recognizing that students grow and develop at their own pace, our early childhood teachers spend a good part of the day observing students’ interests and levels of readiness in an effort to provide just the right amount of instruction for each child. It is not uncommon to observe both students learning their letters and sounds, and other students reading in the classroom. Both scenarios are part of a broad spectrum of learning found in the kindergarten classroom and represent normal child development.
Play is often talked about as if it were relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning.
An unfortunate reaction to meeting the Common Core State Standards in higher grades has been the pushing down of reading content and skills making many kindergarten classrooms today look like the first grade classrooms of yesterday. These new norms are largely rooted in the need to close the achievement gap that exists between the 22 percent of children who live in poverty in the United States (16 million) and their peers.
Having high expectations for quality early childhood programming is appropriate, but often this has translated into educational practices that are not child-friendly (Walker, 2015), and research does not support the need for such practice. Research conducted by Sebastian Suggate at New Zealand’s University of Otago compared the achievement of students who read at age five with students who read at age seven. The study revealed that by age eleven both groups possessed equivalent reading skills. There seems to be little to no advantage to rushing children to read earlier than they are ready.
According to the Gesell Institute for Child Development, childhood milestones have not changed in the past 100 years. “Students at age 5 ½ typically cannot perceive an oblique line in a triangle - a prerequisite to recognizing, understanding and writing certain letters” (Lecker, 2014). Developing concepts such as subtraction and addition, even to number 5, is a concept that is typically not seen until a student reaches 5 ½ or 6 years old. Students may memorize these skills, but true understanding is reserved for a more mature age. Students build literacy skills and understand foundational concepts through the process of speaking and listening as they seek to make meaning through dramatic play (Lecker, 2014).
The Benefits of Play
Aside from setting the stage for future learning, play and inquiry based learning in the early childhood grades has other benefits. According to Lisa Molomot, the director of a recent documentary, School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten, in order for children to learn, they must first pay attention (Korbey, 2014). Molomot explains, “In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.” Although free play may look like recess, learning is taking place. Through play, young students develop their fine and gross motor skills, as well as their core strength and balance, which is needed later to hold their bodies still long enough to learn.
On the playground and in learning centers, students take learning risks as they ask questions, role play, and reenact what they heard the teacher say in the morning’s mini lesson. In a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado, students who were able to participate in free play developed stronger, self- directed executive functioning - a strong predictor of school success. Executive function is the ability to plan, focus, remember instructions, set priorities, and multitask. Intellectual, social, emotional, and physical learning takes place as children play. Through play students have opportunities to develop their problem solving skills, creativity, imagination, original thinking, cooperation, and collaboration as they make up games, decide rules, and work together. Although not as measureable as academic achievement, these skills are capacities that are essential for later success in school.
What better way to provide children with opportunities to develop these capacities than through outdoor play? How often is a child observed at play and one wonders what they were thinking or creating? Playing outside naturally provides children with ever-changing, hands-on activities and opportunities for movement. Outdoor play is different from indoor play. Outdoor play allows children to run, shout, sing, jump, roll, and tumble unobstructed by walls or tables. Playing outdoors provides students with first hand experiences with nature as students collect acorns, line up rocks, pick dandelions, and observe the first frost. Because changes in society are resulting in less time and access to the outdoors, parents and teachers must be intentional to provide these opportunities to promote healthy growth and development. One of the benefits of the early childhood playground at DC is the natural woodland setting which lends itself to creativity and free play. Here young students can jump on boulders, build with tree cookies, collect acorns, climb play equipment, and create new songs on the outdoor drum and xylophone.
Play Foundational to Learning
A peek into a kindergarten classroom will reveal students who are at every stage of early learning. Some are just recognizing letters and the sounds they make, others are reading beginning books independently. This broad spectrum of learning is to be expected given that students all learn at a different pace. Some take longer than others, and some need extra help. Recognizing the various signs of readiness is critical to growing strong readers. Encouraging students to grow in their reading skills - from talking and listening, to recognizing single letters and the sounds they make, to writing to communicate - takes the keen eye of a dedicated teacher, and parental support to provide many opportunities to read and enjoy books. As students enjoy books with adults, they learn to rhyme, predict, and “read” pictures. They learn that letters make sounds, and those sounds blended together make words. Those words tell stories for all to enjoy.
Growing lifelong readers should be a fun and joyful experience that marks a milestone in the life of the child. Using play as the foundation to building academic knowledge and providing a joyful, literacy rich environment is what students experience in the “KinderWoods” and “Pre-K Trail” at DC. It is a playful place filled with joy and learning.