Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool

As a parent and educator I have learned it is necessary to understand the needs of my 2 toddlers and look for programs that will meet those needs. Recently, I began looking at new preschools for my 2 boys. In doing so, I’ve come across various interpretations as to what preschool should be and what it should have throughout the day. I found it interesting the first thing preschool educators talk about is of the rigorous curriculum tasked by the children. There is limited mention of play and social learning. The educator in me loves to hear this and hear about the different curriculums and styles of teaching implored. As a parent, I have to sit back, and wonder are our children missing something. A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool is a book I recently read addresses this main point. The book discusses how all schools, and now even preschools, are moving away from “play” and towards drill and practice (also called direct instruction) with the goal of improving performance on standardized assessments and meeting, increasingly demanding learning standards.

This book is a reasoned and evidence-based argument for the importance of play in preschool education. It is written to provide educators and administrators ammunition to advocate for bringing back play into the preschool classroom. For me, this book was educational, and an easy read. I have to admit the author was preaching to the choir. For Interactive Story Adventures founder, Dr. Jordan Lippman, this book was tedious and challenging because it is written in broad strokes, to make it easy to read, in turn, it left out many of the details of the research that supported points of the argument – leaving it up to the reader to track down sources. We agree the strength of this book is it synthesizes an enormous amount of diverse research to make passionate argument. I would like to pull out three important points of this argument: 1. Children need both unstructured free play and playful learning under the guidance of adults.

We are taking playtime out of preschool and early childhood education due to trying to get a head start on academics, yet there is scientific evidence to suggest that taking play out of education is the wrong direction. Allowing children to both create their own “stories” and play as well as “guided play” that is structured and supervised by adults is essential to learning. Guided play allows children to have seemingly spontaneous play through activities that encourage academic exploration and learning. Grossburg stated that new Preschool has been evolving over time, but there is no doubt that it is markedly different from the type most parents of current Preschool students attended. Instead of allowing kids to engage in self-directed play, preschools, under pressure to prepare kids for standardized tests, including those mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and the Common Core, are turning to planned lessons and even lectures. There is also a mistaken belief that an early emphasis on academics will lead to creating better students down the road. The Wall Street Journal in 2005, published an article stating “President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Program pushed districts to require from younger pupils. As a result, in many districts, skills once deemed appropriate for first and second graders are taught in kindergarten while kindergarten skills have been bumped down to preschool.” As a result, many preschools and kindergartens reduced their play periods or eliminated them altogether. According to ISA’s Founder, “There is a larger issue within the field of learning science about the role of direct instruction versus free play or discovery play. In many respects, it is a false dichotomy — in reality, both are probability needed for different reasons and in different circumstances. For example, free play promotes social and language development; direct instruction promotes learning basic scientific inquiry skills, but guided play promotes strong critical thinking skills.” A study by Buchsbaum and Gopnik (2011) described below is used to argue for the power of free play over direct instruction. This study could be interpreted to show the power of direct instruction — when shown an approach to playing through direct instruction, children adopt that mode of play. Direct instruction has it role but so does free play. Studies by David Klahr (for example, Klahr & Nigam, 2004) at Carnegie Mellon University show that elementary school children only learn how to design controlled science experiments through direct instruction and they learn the incorrect way to design experiments through free play. Dr. Lippman’s perspective aligns with a position taken in the book best exemplified by a quote by Kagan and Lowenstein (2004), “the literature is clear: diverse strategies that combine play and more structured efforts are effective accelerators of children’s readiness for school and long term development.” 2. Play enhances both academic and social development, and they are intertwined – academic learning enhances and cannot take priority over social learning. Free play supports the development of math and literacy skills. Physical manipulation of blocks of various sizes and shapes helps them build spatial reasoning. Children naturally narrate their play experience which boosts verbal fluency. Not only does play lay the foundation for math and reading, but it also paves the way for social skill development. Children learn to follow rules, cooperate with others, and engage in socially appropriate behavior. These are intertwined because emotional and behavioral adjustment – developed through play – is an important factor in early school success (Raver, 2002). Play is the first part of the lifelong learning journey (Tullis, 2011) and time spent on play as opposed to direct instruction can lead children to learn to invent their own learning. Buchsbaum and Gopnik (2011) showed that children naturally discovered the most efficient way to operate a complicated toy during free play, but they did not when children were initially shown a specific and detailed way to use the toy. Peter Pizzolongo, associate director for professional development at The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) says childrens’ work is to play, “When they are learning and playing with joy, then it is a positive experience. They develop a positive approach to learning.” 3. Play has a significant developmental role and preschoolers should only be asked to do developmentally appropriate tasks. The book argues that experts, including top neuropsychologists, have determined that preschoolers are not ready for goal-directed learning. Instead, children learn more when they are allowed to play. The ability to play independently is so crucial that children who do not “just play” are at a disadvantage. Children of preschool and kindergarten age need to play and use their body physically to discover realities about the way the world works. Children who are pushed to read at an early age, for example, may forfeit time spent playing, and, as a result, their learning in the long term may suffer. Instead, it is normal for children to learn to read between the ages of three and seven (Tullis, 2011). Children who were pushed too early to accomplish tasks such as reading at points not appropriate for their developmental level; may experience frustration and to be become averse to learning. My reaction The message of the book is clear: play and playful learning in the preschool setting is paramount. Children learn many things when they play – play provides the opportunity for academic and social development and prepares children to be lifelong learners. Reading this book lead me to take a step back and reflect. There is no doubt that play is replaced with rigorous academic activities. I see the value in keeping play, but recognize the pressure that educators experience to help their students to do well on high-stakes tests. As a parent, I value schools that try to balance academics and play. I also make sure that there is play built into my sons’ daily lives. I want them to be well rounded and successful. As a parent-educator, I seek to keep myself educated about the state of the school system and help others make informed decisions about education and well-being of their loved ones. One take away is clear — carve out some time each week to play with your kids with no objectives or goals or agenda. Just be together and play like children. Thoughts? Share them via comments below. Citations: Bodrova, E. & Leong, D.J. (2007) Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Buchsbaum, Daphna, et al. “Children’s imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence.” Cognition 120.3 (2011): 331-340. Klahr, D. & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15(10). Kagan, S.L., & Lowenstein, A.E. (2004). School readiness and children’s play: Contemporary oxymoron or compatible option? In E.F. Zigler, D.G. Singer & S.J. Bishop-Josef (Eds), Children’s play: The roots of reading (pp 59-76). Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press. Raver,C.C. (2002). Emotions matter: Making the case fire the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness. SRCD Social Policy Report, XVI, 3-18.

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