On The Importance of Play

by Jane Nolan

Tonight I'd like to speak with you for a few minutes about play and its significance for young children.

In our school literature, Park West depicts its curriculum as play based. But what does that mean and do children really learn when they play? For many, play is natural. It's what children do. But do they need to do it at school? That's an important question because play at school is under assault today. Some parents and school administrators can worry that play gets in the way of content areas and the acquisition of skills that children need to succeed in school and life. They may worry that play is an aimless activity in which no learning happens. This reflects a lack of understanding of child development and how children learn. Because for young children play should BE the curriculum. Play is critically important for young children's learning and development. Through play young children learn ways to initiate and maintain friendships, to engage in symbolic and abstract thinking, and explore new ideas. Play boosts self-confidence and self-respect and fortifies children to face new challenges with enthusiasm and self-assurance. Play benefits every facet of young children's development.

Play is how children explore the world.

A baby playing peek-a-boo, discovering mom is still there, a toddler rolling a ball and finding it doesn't roll back on its own, a three-year-old pretending to feed a baby, a four-year-old organizing a running game. All of these actions by children of different ages, at different developmental levels, are children learning. These children are learning through play.

Children try to make sense of the world through play. They are immersed in learning all of the time. They are watching adults and other children and imitating what they see. Think of how babies acquire language. Babies learn language by being spoken to. They learn through the play and cooing of caring adults. Parents naturally talk to babies about what is going on around them. Say goodbye to daddy, see the dog, here comes the airplane bringing you this spoonful of food. It is these interactions with adults, some very deliberate and others more casual that teach babies how to use language. Babies don't need a language class to acquire speech; they need interactions in which speech is used. So too young children need play. We don't need to have a pull out about science in nursery school.

It's embedded in what happens through play - just notice what happens at the water table. Play at the water table may include pouring water from a large bucket into a smaller bucket and wondering why the water doesn't all fit, or trying to get water to go up a tube not just down, or working to figure out why some things float and others just sink. One of the keys to these musings and discoveries is that they come from the child's own interest and curiosity and sense of pleasure. The true aim of children in play is pleasure. This sense of pleasure fortifies one to keep going and trying out new ideas. For Piaget the interest of children can drive cognition. If children are truly interested, they are paying attention, they are mentally active working with the materials, trying out an idea or hypothesis often trying to figure out why something didn't work they way they thought it would.

Similar tactile experiences await children at the sand table.

Why does sand come out of that sifter so quickly but so slowly out of that one? How heavy is a bucket filled with sand? Why does sand feel different when it's wet? Why won't dry sand stick together? Active engagement with these materials leads children to these questions. Physical movement is tied to the cognitive development of young children because young children think concretely, not abstractly. They need to touch and experience these materials to expand their understanding and knowledge of them. As children play they establish important links between action and thought, connections that are the basis of mental processes. For some children the sand table can be a place of comfort as they enjoy the feel of the sand as it runs through their fingers or when a new friend helps to bury your hands in the smooth sand.

Let's think about the block area. What are children learning over by the blocks?

Children use their creativity and imagination as they turn blocks into a phone to call mom or a long road to drive cars on. They develop hand eye coordination and sense of balance as they build the tallest tower ever. They need to negotiate with their friends as they decide whether to make a spaceship or a pirate ship or a stage for singing and dancing. They may build a hideout for bad guys in order to feel powerful and gain some control over their own worries and feelings. Fantasy play provides a means of developing abstract thought and practicing self-regulation skills.

Near the blocks some kids are making a zoo of animals by putting all the elephants together or organizing the baby animals to be near the adult animals, or separating the meat-eating dinosaurs from the plant eaters. Counting, sorting, and classifying the animals contributes to understanding of number and comparisons of similarities and differences. Also on the rug are children moving puzzle pieces to get them to fit, and children looking for the blue balloon for the balloon board game - it's the only piece they need, and others trying to make the train cars hook together. Are they playing or learning? Each time children play out a new pretend sequence they demonstrate an emerging ability to recreate sequence and make sense out of a complex occurrence.

How about over at the playhouse? How are children playing there?

They are acting out the roles of adults as they pretend to diaper or scold babies, or arrange a table for dinner, or dress up and try to figure out what does it mean to go to a meeting. Through this fantasy play, children can correct reality as they know it and be in charge. They can have some power ? at a time when they are beginning to realize how little power they, as children, really have. They can try on different gender roles and play at being a boy or girl, man or woman, mom or dad, or be a little baby again.

They sharpen their language skills, expanding vocabulary as they look over a menu or take someone's order at the playhouse restaurant, or explain to a friend they are looking for the blue dress up with flowers on it. They work on math concepts as they determine how many babies need to use the highchair and how many highchairs we might have. They learn to negotiate as they include other children in the play and work through assigning roles - who's the mom the dad, the baby, or the upstairs neighbor. They build self-confidence as they learn to enter the play, express their opinion, ask or demand a particular role, explain to a friend how to rock a baby. They can work through feelings about separation as they send a baby doll off to school, telling the baby the teacher will help them and that after school mom will be there to pick them up.

Pretending gives children the freedom to address feelings, anxieties, and fears. Through fantasy, children re-create and modify experiences to their liking. This fosters a sense of comprehension, control, and mastery. This can enhance feelings of security.

Over at the easel children are noticing that they have made green even though they only used blue and yellow. How did that happen?

One child may think of mom as he paints a house and adds flowers and a bright sun. Another child may relive that scary lightning storm as he paints a stormy sky and explains to a teacher about the night he was worried about thunder. During group time children work on impulse control as they wait for a chance to be the funny clown in the middle of the group, or to suggest a song, or to tell about a new baby at home. Waiting, delaying gratification, listening to others during their turn are all difficult. Following a procedure of raising your hand to get a turn can be tough to remember and tougher to actually do.

At group children listen and watch each detail as a teacher shows how to play the sleeping grump board game, trying to remember for a future turn. Children gain self-control and self-confidence as participating members of group time. At snack children might need to ask someone to pass the snack. That means figuring out if you like that kind of cracker, who the basket is near, and then having the confidence to ask someone to pass and the words to make them understand. As you can imagine a child is drawing on more than language skills.

Play can lead to self-discovery. What do I like to do?

What is easy for me? What is difficult? What do I like to do alone? What do I like to do with other people? How can I get other people to play with me? To follow my idea? To say play is the work of children can belie all that is happening for children as they play and learn. Play is the means through which young children access information, investigate materials, experiment with roles, create symbolic representations, reinvent number, and communicate through written and spoken words.

The internal excitement derived from discovery and mastery nurtures children's innate desire to learn. This passion and internalized sense of accomplishment is what motivates children's learning. It's really not at all accurate to say that science happens at the water table and sensory exploration at the sand table, language arts at the writing table, or negotiating at the playhouse. All domains, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical, are inextricably intertwined like a strand of DNA. Children are drawing on all domains no matter what area of the classroom they are in. Isolated facts don't make sense to young children and are therefore easily forgotten. Young children learn in a context of meaning, following their own ideas with interesting materials in concert with peers in an atmosphere of trust and social interaction. This doesn't happen just because the children are here together. This can happen because teachers create relationships with children and an environment where exploration, discovery, interaction, and cooperation thrive.

Teachers set up the classroom in a thoughtful way to help children begin to understand what questions they have and give them ways to investigate those questions.

Teachers support children as they integrate new ideas into old thinking. The atmosphere for play is dependent on the skill of the teachers. The physical room, but also the emotional climate. Teachers make it safe for a child to ask questions, tryout one's own ideas, explore unfamiliar materials. Then observing, noticing the work and interest of children, teachers use these observations and their knowledge of these particular children and child development in general to extend children's ideas and support their interactions, by reframing the direction and course of the plan, offering support, incorporating new materials, asking questions, making suggestions, creating community. Teachers become co-constructors of knowledge with children providing a bridge from children's current abilities to their future cognitive, social, and emotional and moral development.

Let's picture a child sitting on a teacher's lap reading a book. Would you say that's a literacy activity? Well, sure it is. They are looking at words, reading together, the child hearing the teacher say the words. But so much more than reading is happening. The relationship between teacher and child becomes richer and more rewarding. There's the closeness, the confidence, the specialness, and security the child feels with the teacher. Knowing that the teacher is interested in you, your ideas. The child understands she is important, that each child is important. So are children just playing or is learning occurring while they play? Indeed, children are learning all the while they play and they are acquiring the skills some adults worry about. But they are learning so much more than just how to count to 10 or how to recognize the letter M. It is through play that children show initiative, negotiate to reach a consensus, create plans, take risks, gain confidence, and try out something that may be just a glimmer of an idea. When you're assisting look with perhaps a keener eye to really see what is happening for children as they play. And notice how teachers assist the play and learning.

What children get from play is so complex, so rich, so personal, so inspiring. Allow yourself the time to watch and listen to your child in play. This is your child making sense of the world. It's a wondrous thing. And lucky us, here at school, we get to witness it every day.

Quotes from Our Park West Family

"On the weekend, I couldn't wait to go back. I wish I could spend my whole life there."

—Andy W., former student