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.