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The Power of Play

“So what do you do all” As an early childhood teacher, I’ve heard this question hundreds of times.  I smile knowingly as I respond because, to be honest, I understand. Glance over at a group of children at play and how could you think otherwise? These children are chatting and laughing, completely engrossed in their materials, and having a blast. How could this be considered anything except pure fun? To understand what’s really happening here, we have to look a bit deeper.

What exactly is happening as children explore new materials and interact with their peers and their environment? Why aren’t we asking them to do “real learning” activities like memorizing letter sounds and identifying numbers? Wouldn’t that give them a head start in school success? As it turns out, play is an incredibly powerful medium for learning, problem solving, and school success. It is a tool for developing language and social skills. And children at play are self-motivated and engaged with their activities, never treating their learning as drudgery and always excited to do more. Isn’t that exactly the attitude we strive to encourage in schooling through the years?

So play is pleasurable, self-motivating, and fosters a love of learning. But for some well-meaning adults, that doesn’t seem to be enough. “That all sounds lovely but the world is a more complicated and demanding place than it was in “our day”! Don’t we need to start early and train our youngest students to rise to the challenges of a modern world?” Absolutely! But interestingly, the way we can prepare them is by providing opportunities for meaningful, self-guided play. Studies have shown that children who begin learning to read at a younger age have no higher reading comprehension than children who began later, so there seems to be no rush to memorize letter sounds or sight words.  Nonetheless, this IS a critical time for learning! The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published an article in 2016 outlining the 6 C’s that children will need to become successful adults in the 21st century. They are also six crucial skills that develop naturally through play.

  • Collaboration: children learn to work together to reach a shared goal.

  • Communication: children learn to interact with others to convey meaning (verbally and nonverbally). This includes talking and listening.

  • Content: children learn skills needed to accomplish a goal. These includes math, literacy, and science skills that emerge naturally through play.

  • Critical thinking: children learn to use information in a variety of ways. This involves paying attention, remembering, and changing thought patterns.

  • Creative innovation: children think outside the box and become successful problem solvers.

  • Confidence: children take risks and discover what they can do on their own.

It seems to me that an adult with a combination of these six skills is someone a company would feel good about hiring in any field. Amazingly, I have observed 3 and 4 year olds interacting with their world using all six of these skills and enjoying themselves the entire time!

Mr. Rogers said it best. “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning,” he said. “But for children, play is serious learning.”  So yes, we do play all day. And you’ll be amazed what we can achieve.

It’s Never “Just Play” by Linda Gillespie

Let the Kids Learn Through Play by David Kohn

Why Play is the Work of Childhood by Heidi Moore

Kristen Cronheim is a contributing writer for  the Little Bee Learning Studio blog. She holds a BS from Cornell University in Human Development and a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Hofstra University. Kristen taught both PreK and Kindergarten for 5 years and created curricula devoted to play-based learning.  She lives in Hoboken with her husband and daughter.

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