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The Value of Play

A Child's Play is Serious Work

by Anoo Padte, Education Coach, Art of Education

The traditional kindergarten classroom that most adults remember from childhood has largely disappeared. In recent years kindergarten and even preschools are more focused on developing literacy and numeracy skills through direct didactic instruction and testing.

The value of play has been questioned by the widespread assumption promoted by smart baby products that the earlier children begin to master basic reading skills like phonics and letter recognition the more likely they are to succeed in school.

This assumption is inaccurate. Young children work hard at play. Play has been shown to lay down the foundational architecture of the brain that is essential to learning language, to becoming a good reader, a proficient mathematician, to having a rich vocabulary and to developing the love of learning, a quality considered most critical for longer term, sustained interest in learning.

The "play" I am talking about is child-initiated play, play that is co-created by children with each other, in an environment that is carefully crafted by teachers. It is not superficial passing play, it is not play in which “anything goes” and that might deteriorate easily into chaos.

It is complex, make-believe play in which children collaborate with each other, create plot lines, invent, build and solve problems. In such play, when children enter conflict it is seen as essential to their play, indeed to their learning. In conflict, children learn how to listen, express, understand. This kind of play is integrative. It combines many media and modalities including but not limited to: storytelling, literature, child-initiated writing, physical and visual arts (not just crafts), the use and immersion in a second language and music. Teachers have a strong but subtle role to play in such play-oriented classrooms. Teachers carefully craft the environment for such play and they observe children. They know their developmental needs and they respond to their questions. They craft an intentional curriculum that is centered on and that emerges from children’s play.

Intentional, child-initiated, rich, complex play cannot be separated from learning. Play is not less than learning. In play children learn about themselves, they lay down essential cognitive, social, physical, emotional and even spiritual foundations and they gather skills.

They learn about themselves as thinkers, collaborators, problem solvers, friends – all essential ways of thinking and being. Children who engage in long duration child-initiated play in carefully crafted environments are shown to develop greater language skills, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are strong problem solvers and are able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. They have larger brains and develop more complex neurological structures than non-players. They are less aggressive and maintain better mental and physical health.

In my work with the parents of 3-5 year olds, I ask them what they most want for their child as a result of her education. The vast majority of parents want their child to be happy. Happiness research indicates that play is an integral part of being happy. Its foundation is laid in preschool years so that even as adults, those preschoolers will continue playing, so they can be happy!

About the Author

Anoo PadteAnoo Padte, the founder of Art of Education, helps parents choose the right preschool/school, coaches on parenting for a fulfilling education and provides math and science enrichment. She is a certified teacher, coach, speaker and writer.

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