by Sarah Sivright
This is an all-hands-on-deck call for parents and educators to join us in defense of play! We have all seen the growing “academicization” of early childhood education, and the disappearance of play. We’ve seen preschool become kindergarten and kindergarten turn into first grade. Parents are holding children back until they are ready to fit into this new curriculum, which no longer fits the child. We need to say Enough! and make our voices heard.
I toured a prospective parent the other day and found myself, once again, in a discussion about developmentally appropriate curriculum. Developmentally appropriate simply means that you meet the child where s/he is (cognitively, socially, physically, emotionally) and don’t expect that child to do what they can’t. That’s not to say we don’t challenge children and encourage them to take risks, but we do it within a reasonable range, without a steady diet of being “stretched.” The central axis of All Season’s three-part mission as an intergenerational, art and nature-based program is PLAY. Developmentally appropriate learning for young children happens mostly through play and in a relevant context, not through filling up workbooks or sitting at tables for math lessons.
In November, the All Seasons staff attended a workshop led by Denita Dinger, a nationally known educator and “defender of play.” She was preaching to the choir at All Seasons, as well as to many others in the audience. She cited the growing body of research describing the benefits of outdoor (“rough and tumble” or large muscle play) and indoor play. This research contains an increasing number of studies with hard data, detailing both the benefits of play and the consequences of when it is restricted. Dinger cited one particular study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
“Researchers had preschoolers try out an interactive toy that could squeak, light up, play music, and more. They showed one group how to make the toy squeak but gave no instructions to the other group. In the end, the undirected kids figured out everything the toy could do simply by experimenting with it, while the directed ones never got it to do anything other than squeak. “
Educators and parents see children become absorbed for long periods of time in an activity of their own choosing, demonstrating creative and problem-solving abilities far beyond the adults’ expectations. Without constant adult direction children are capable of stretching and challenging themselves.
Many of you are on the play/developmentally appropriate bandwagon already or are ready to hop on. I’d like to encourage you. This shift away from play-based practice happened partly out of anxiety and fear surrounding the achievement gap between groups of students, but research shows it has backfired. Now we need to push back. This challenge is a bit like changing the course of an ocean liner, but it can be done. Recent changes in federal policy have shown that the government can be responsive to public dissatisfaction. When your child moves on from this idyllic early childhood setting, find the change you’d like to see in your next school and make it happen. You can begin with finding a couple other parents who want a recess for their first graders, or want to keep the big blocks and doll corner in the kindergarten room. Find an ally or two—there are others out there—and take the first step. Teachers, principals, superintendents and beyond will eventually take notice of these brave voices. We’ll do our part by protecting the primary role of play in preschool. Find your cause, your first small step beyond All Seasons.