Monday, October 17, 2011

Play: The Basis for Early Learning

I do love serendipity, and since writing my last blog, Scientific American published an article in the October 2011 issue titled "More Than Child's Play: Young Children Think Like Researchers but Lose the Feel for the Scientific Method as They Age" by Sharon Begley which discusses the ways that young children explore their world in order to solve problems.  The research is showing that young children form hypothesis, test their hypothesis, and then form conclusions about the world based on that. And I think any parent who has watched a child work it to get what they want can attest to this skill! However, the article notes that this skill is lost in K-12 students, and draws the conclusion that it is because we do not learn to make the "connection between the abstract and real-world puzzles (Begley, Scientific American, October 2011)." While this may be a question of semantics, I think many early childhood advocates (myself among them) feel that it relates more to the lack of value put on exploratory play, and the emphasis on black and white problems and answers that do not relate to our young people's lives.

In my previous blog, I wrote that as a field we need to be very intentional on how we explain to those outside our field why play matters and this in one such example.  Play matters because it is how children experience decision-making, make sense of the world, and understand their place in that world.  Exploratory, free play allows children to develop their skills at problem solving which is at the heart of human experience. Another article, published in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic ("Beautiful Brains" by David Dobbs), explores why teenagers need to take risks to become healthy, well-adjusted adults.  It is an interesting premise that again depends on the ability to explore new options, apply what you learned to the real world, and to create something entirely new (and, as an aside, is one reason why our field should teach not just child development, but human development so we know where young children are going in terms of development).  As the National Geographic article states our ability as humans to live in so many varied climates is dependent on our ability to be innovative.

In this view of play, play serves the purpose of teaching problem solving and innovation, skills on which our very survival as humans has, and still, depends.  This view holds with Stuart Brown's book titled Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul which explores the value of play for not only humans, but other animals as well.  Mr. Brown cites research done by Bob and Johanna Fagen that shows that grizzly bears "that played the most were the ones who survived the best." (Brown, pg 31).  And if you think about it, play is seen in several animals kingdoms- birds do it, mammals do it, fish do it, and even some insects seem to be doing it.  Play must serve a purpose that enhances survival, and as with grizzly bears, play benefits humans (as another aside, this research is not coming out of the ECE field, but biology and psychology which is why ECE should, in my opinion, be multidisciplinary).  Play is the basis for our ability to adapt to new situations and apply our knowledge to those situations.

So the next time, someone ask you why the children are only playing, you can explain some of the research that has been done on the value of play.  Ask yourself, your colleagues, and the families whose children you care for what you want those children to be as adults, and if the answer is for them to become scientists, lawyers, doctors, leaders, then they need to be playing now so they can solve the problems that they will face in any of those professions and move our nation (and the world) forward. In other words, so they can create the world they wish to live in and one which will be hopefully better than the one we live in now.

Monday, October 3, 2011

How Do ECE Professionals Advocate for Play

Most ECE professionals have had the experience of a parent walking into their programs and asking what their child learned today and when we respond that they played with blocks, trains, dolls, balls, etc, to which the parent responds "I meant what did you teach them. Where are the worksheets with letters and numbers?"  In these moments many providers feel frustrated and angry at the parent, but if we don't explain how play promotes child development how will the parent ever understand?  The problem with play not being accepted as valid is not only a problem of societal norms, but also one of the field of ECE not clearly explaining to those outside of the field why it matters.

As a culture, it has been a long time since we put value on play. Certainly since the Industrial Revolution, but I think with some quick research you would find that it goes back even further than that. The emphases in our culture had been put on work, and play is seen as a luxury that few cannot afford.  However, on some levels, our culture (by which I mean Western) does understand that work and play can go hand in hand- think of A Spoonful of Sugar from Mary Poppins.  Even so if you mention that you enjoy your work the response that you get ranges from a weird look to suspicion to downright disdain, and while all of the responses may have jealousy as an underlying feeling, you rarely get a response that is supportive.

This leaves ECE professionals not only needing to explain the fairly new research on play and the brain, but trying to undo thousands of years of cultural norms.  As a result  and as a field, we have often chosen to use words that we think people can relate to, such as school readiness.  However, I do not think that we have always done a good job of explaining what this means.  For example, when you hear school readiness what do you think of?  Most likely, you think of knowing the letters, numbers, and being able to count to some arbitrary amount.   Does your program spend the time to let parents know that this means much more, and that knowing the letters, numbers, counting, etc are actually mid-steps in developing reading and math skills? Do those in influential positions within the field spend the time with funders and decision makers to do the same?

It is not that these words are bad to use, and it is easier to expand the meaning of a well-known word than to try to change the meaning of a word.  When I led tours for families I used the word academically appropriate for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, but I explained what I meant. For example, when I talked about academics for infants I talked about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, attachment, and responsiveness as the basis for all future learning.  Though, not all parents will relate to this, the parents I worked with (well-educated, and mostly middle income) did.

It is unlikely that everyone agrees with language that is being used, but like it or not it is where we are at.  As  advocates for high quality ECE programs that implement best practices (which can look very different), it is important for us to carefully evaluate the types of language that we use, and be sure that we are clearly explaining what that means to those who work outside of our profession (and sometimes, might I add, to those in our profession!).  Once we know what words we are using and why it will be easier for us as a field to explain concepts, such as play, to parents, the media, funders, and decision makers.  Next time, I will write more about how to explain the value of play to those (both inside and outside of the field) who may not understand it.