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.