Director’s Column: A Love of Learning Starts with Play

By Jennifer Winters, Director

In play, the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all the developmental tendencies in a condensed form and it is itself a major source of development. —Lev S. Vygotsky

A young child’s love for learning starts with play. Play is a vital part of the cognitive, social and emotional development of young children. But play has been and continues to be under attack. For decades play and its many benefits to young children have been unintended casualties of some educational-reform efforts.

In the historic Space Race, which began in 1957, Russia beat the United States in putting a man into space with the launch of Sputnik. In a response similar to many at the time, Admiral Hyman Rickover (the father of the nuclear Navy) stated that Russian children are busy learning mathematics while American children are finger painting. Reactions like this fueled a perception of national embarrassment, which in turn bolstered the movement in education to focus on the “three R’s”—reading, writing and arithmetic (Dorothy G. Singer, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth). More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 resulted in school districts across the country scrambling to push standards once common for first graders down to kindergarten, and skills and standards expected in kindergarten down to preschools. Fast-forward to July 2011 when the federal government launched “The New Race to the Top.” “This program is a $500 million competition among states for early-childhood education aid based on their success at developing rating systems for their programs, crafting appropriate standards and tests for young children, and setting clear expectations for what teachers should know” (Michele McNeil, Education Week). While it is certainly a positive step to raise standards in early childhood education, we find it probable that the Race to the Top, or any program aimed at “pushing standards down” will be fraught with the same pitfalls that ensnarled No Child Left Behind, specifically the emphasis on measuring and testing children’s cognitive abilities, with little or no attention paid to their social, emotional and physical development.

All too often, well-intended politicians, educators and parents mistakenly think of play as the opposite of work. This notion is very risky when it comes to early childhood education, often resulting in the belief that play can’t possibly be the direction taken in our quest to give young children the best start for their educational journey. This misconception is only too often reinforced in our media and our culture. As an example, this summer I heard the following sound bite during a major network’s morning news show: “Coming up next, how to sneak learning into your child’s play.” They could just as easily have been touting a compelling story about learning through play, but they never do. Despite decades of research in child development supporting how children learn through play, with a great deal of it taking place at Bing, many continue to grapple with the idea that children really develop the cognitive, emotional and social skills needed to create a love of learning in a play-based environment. At Bing, this only serves to make our mission and our message more important.

According to David Elkind: “When play, love and work are all involved, learning and development are the most effective. Play is not a luxury but rather a crucial dynamic of healthy physical, intellectual and social-emotional development at all age levels. During infancy and early childhood, play is the dominant and directing mode of activity; love and work are secondary.” (The Power of Play) While the cliché “play is children’s work” may sound trite, it is actually quite accurate, as evident in this incident observed in East room one afternoon:

A four-year-old girl is using metal dishes and water on an outside table. Other children surround her and are working on various “cooking” projects. She holds and examines carefully a cup of pale purple water with bits of dirt and bark in it.

She then exclaims in a loud voice, “This white pearl tea is preposterous! It tastes like tree bark!” She quickly dumps out the water and refills the cup, extending her arm while holding the cup as if to get an exact measurement, saying, “Hmmm, one cup!”

She seems to speak to herself and quietly murmurs, “Cinnamon tea. A little bit of cinnamon and a little bit of raspberry and strawberry…and tea.” A nearby child stops and listens to her exclamation and excitedly announces, “I’m making hot chocolate!” The teacher nods and asks, “What ingredients do you need for your hot chocolate?” The play continues for the better part of an hour with three to four children entering the play and engaging in various “cooking” projects. The teacher helps keep the play going by adding props when needed (extra water, pans and spoons) and through open-ended questions and statements such as “What do you need next?” and “I see you needed a lot of strawberries [which are actually small acorns] for your pie.”

Clearly, this child is acting out what is on her mind, what she knows from her real life experiences (both parents happen to be chefs). However, in this brief scenario she works out the basic tenets of following a recipe, employing measurement strategies and carefully examining the cup to see if it is exactly the measurement she needs for her recipe. She displays a rich vocabulary and a basic knowledge that there are flavors in tea and set amounts of ingredients in the recipe. She demonstrates hand-eye coordination as she pours and measures her tea. Also, she engages in symbolic play—using one thing to represent another—acorns for strawberries and purple water for tea. This ability to think about an object that is not present (the tea or strawberries) and use something else to represent it (colored water with bark or acorns) is a step in learning to think abstractly. This play experience was also a very emotionally satisfying activity for the child. It allowed the child to explore a range of emotions. For example, she explored the feeling of being dissatisfied (dare I say outraged?) with the tea, then coped with this feeling in a constructive way to fix the situation. The ability to stay focused for 45 minutes in an activity that she initiated is also significant. Remaining focused is a crucial component of developing a disposition for learning.

Young children have deep needs to play out events and ideas in their lives. Play is a fundamental and basic right for every child, and preventing play can be harmful to a child’s overall development. A recent study examining mothers’ attitudes toward play in 16 nations across five continents sounded an alarm that play is disappearing from their children’s lives. Another significant finding of the study was that mothers felt their children were being asked to grow up too fast and thus missing out on experiential learning that comes only from unstructured time to play (Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, “Children’s Pastimes and Play in Sixteen Nations,” American Journal of Play). Adults don’t intentionally disallow play, but often get so caught up in making sure children are prepared for the next step that they forget that they are just two, three, four and five years old and that they are in the “here and now” and need to be treated as such (Karen Robinette, “How Play-Based Nursery Schools Prepare Children for Kindergarten,” The Bing Times). Academic skills (i.e., the three R’s) will come but we need to recognize that for preschool age children these emerging skills are best learned through play. However, if play is not viewed as the powerful vehicle for learning in young children that it has been shown to be, it becomes sacrificed in the efforts to push the teaching of skills once reserved for kindergarten down to nursery school. And young children will lose very much. They will be denied experiences that come only from play, including chances to work out life events, and they’ll miss precious opportunities to develop a disposition for learning that will last a lifetime.

At Bing we are cognizant of what children and parents will be facing in their educational journey and we are committed to providing children the strongest foundation to solidify this love of learning. For young children, these skills include the cognitive, social, emotional and physical. Attitude formation begins early in young children, so it is essential they have repeated opportunities to engage in spontaneous play, using their creative, imaginative and curious selves. Fostering children’s interest and motivation, their analytical abilities, the ability to be engaged and focused in an activity that they choose are some of the basic building blocks that will fortify this emerging disposition towards learning. With experienced and dedicated teachers who are well-educated in child development, we know that the children who come through our doors will be respected and supported as they grow and develop into competent young people. We understand that learning is not a race about getting there first, it’s about developing the skills to stay on the track the longest. At Bing we are committed to making the most of our opportunity to get young children started on their road to lifelong learning, and that is best done through play.