CAEYC Conference: Play Is Children’s Work
By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher
Consider this scenario. You are given the chance to spend two days away from home, in a hotel near the beach, with an opportunity to engage with other early childhood professionals, laugh and socialize with fellow Bing teachers, and ponder your commitment to young children. Not only that, you’ll return home with innovative ideas to incorporate into your classrooms. Who could refuse?
Several Bing teachers jumped at this opportunity in March 2002. The destination was Long Beach and the event was the annual conference of the California Association for the Education of Young Children (CAEYC). Early-childhood professionals from various teaching settings gather to discuss issues related to children and families and are challenged to act on behalf of those groups. Partici-pants may choose from sessions cover-ing public policy, curriculum, current research, family relationships, and technology, among other topics.
One remarkable session was “All These Children Do Is Learn” by Laurie Prusso, a full-time instructor at Modesto Junior College, a former teacher with over twenty years of experience, and a mother of six boys. Prusso asked participants to reflect on how their own nursery school experience differed from that of today’s children. Many of us adults attended a half-day nursery school and returned home to our waiting mothers. Today, in contrast, with a significant number of mothers working, children are often in full-time daycare. Parents struggle with this change, not only because they have less time with their children but also because they question whether they are doing enough to prepare their children for what lies ahead. And early-childhood programs have been pressured to change accordingly. Instead of seeking the “home model” in which children have ample time to play, explore, and flow, parents often look for “preschools” that follow an institutional model in which children are prepared for school. In response, teachers must be sensitive to the outlook of parents while encouraging them to tap into their own childhood experiences as a way of developing a healthy perspective on their children as learners.
Adults with young children typically remember spending their early childhoods in unstructured play, such as digging in the sand, running through the sprinklers, playing hide-and-seek after dinner in the summertime, and running back and forth to the neighbors’ yards. The specific examples varied, of course, but children shared a feeling of freedom and mobility combined with the security of being watched not only by their own parents but by neighbors as well. These children had no academic preparation, yet they went on to be successful in school and productive as adults. They did so, Prusso claims, because they had time to explore, to sort out social conflicts, to learn by play how to live in the world. Reclaiming faith in play-based learning is critical for young children and for our society.
Teachers have a special responsibility to articulate for parents and the broader community how learning takes place through play. The first step, according to Prusso, is a learning environment in which children have long periods of uninterrupted time to experience self-direction and freedom. Too much structure limits children. Experiencing challenge and conflict helps them develop problem-solving skills and gives them a feeling of empowerment. Children need to make choices, including what to play, whom to play with, and what materials to use. Playing alone or in parallel or collaboratively, with many levels in between, helps children develop physically, cognitively, socially, and creatively. The teacher’s role is to help define children’s interests and to provide the learning environment and the materials that encourage exploration, practice, and conceptual learning. The experience is academic in that it motivates children for further exploration and gives them a foundation. Building with blocks, for example, they learn to use language, to plan and decide, to organize the world spatially, to listen and wait, and to develop eye-hand coordination. Using play dough, they master the concepts of reversibility, comparison, and volume, learn impulse control as they wait for tools from a friend, and develop assertiveness as they ask for what they need or say “I’m not done yet.” All of these skills are “academic” and prepare children to enter elementary school as learners because they are self-motivated and have a sense of their own control.
Prusso ended her presentation with the recommendation that teachers evaluate their programs to see how much uninterrupted time they give children to play. She took an informal survey of the audience to get a sense of how much time most settings allow. One-half hour per day was the norm. I felt proud and pleased to raise my hand when she asked if anyone’s program allowed for as much as two hours of time. Sadly, I was one of the few who could make that claim.
I returned from the CAEYC conference with the affirmation that Bing sets and maintains the appropriate standard for an early-childhood program at a time when the trend is toward a more academic or structured approach. We should all be proud of and vigilant in our commitment.