PUT PLAY FIRST
Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive
By Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, Oxford University Press
Full disclosure: I haven’t finished reading this book, yet…
…but I’m far enough along to know academic kindergartens and virtual preschools aren’t the best way to build academic success for our children. In fact, I learned the same thing forty-five years ago, when I was a preservice education student. Current research supports previous research. Play is children’s work. Children learn through play. Worksheets in preschool and kindergarten, whether they’re made of paper or on a computer screen, are inappropriate. Cooking stations, dress-up boxes, and building toys are what we need for our littlest learners. We should bring back recess, blocks, and doll buggies. Teach young children through read-aloud, finger play, and singing. Give our youngest children time to play without adult interference.
Despite this strong medical and scientific consensus that play is a foundation of children’s lives and education, play is an increasingly endangered experience for many of the world’s children.
Why is play dying in our schools? There are many social and cultural factors, and one major political reason is “GERM,” or the “Global Education Reform Movement,” a term that co-author Pasi Sahlberg has coined to describe an intellectual school reform paradigm that places academic performance as measured by standardized tests before children’s engagement, well-being, and play in schools.
…”If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.” — Professor Peter Gray
WE’VE BECOME A WORSE WORLD FOR CHILDREN
“Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn, therefore, that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and they learn the world is not so depressing after all. Play is where they learn to get along with peers…and see from other points of view…and practice empathy…and get over narcissism. Play is by definition, creative and innovative…yet the hue and cry that we hear everywhere is for more school not for more play and we’ve really got to change that.” — Peter Gray
Being on a tee-ball team isn’t real play. Pee Wee football isn’t real play. Preschool soccer isn’t real play. Adult directed play, while it has its place, isn’t real play. Children need unstructured play…every day.
There’s a troubling phenomenon happening in early childhood education. It involves aligning standards to fake play.
Children own real play.
In Educating Young Children, Mary Hohmann and David P. Weikart discuss the HighScope preschool program and the welcome backseat adults often take to allow children to freely play. They say: When children are playing or starting to play, and are receptive to other players, adults can sometimes join them in a nondisruptive manner. This is real play.
Real play involves children using their imaginations to plan and work things out on their own. It’s messy and hard work for the child, but it builds thinking skills.
Educating Young Children provides descriptions of materials for play. The authors describe adult-guided educational activities too, but children are also trusted to learn through free play. Adults support the children in their activities. There’s no worry about test scores, but a focus on the child, their development, and the joy of learning.
Unfortunately, for years, unstructured play has been beyond the reach of many children. Kiss curiosity and problem solving good-bye.
UNSTRUCTURED PLAY INCREASES TEST SCORES?
For all those doubters who say we can’t reproduce what Finland has done to make our schools more effective, here’s an example of something we can copy — free, unstructured, play.
We are about two weeks away from kids heading back to the classroom.
One local school system is hoping for another year of increased elementary test scores.
We sat down with the superintendent of Montgomery County schools, and he says a trip overseas to visit one of the world’s best education systems opened his eyes to the one thing that was missing from our classrooms: playtime.
Montgomery County educators see the playground another classroom space where children learn communication and collaboration.
“I think it’s an important part of learning,” said Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Miear.
The change in perspective came after a trip to Finland a couple years ago.
“What I found was that there was not a lot of difference between us and them. Of course, they have some of the highest test scores in the world and they’re very high in terms of academic achievement, so I start looking at what is the difference,” Miear said.
He found they have 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of academic learning.
“We had kids who were spending an entire day in class with very little movement and having to wait until the end of the day for recess and that’s, you know, several hours. That’s not good for kids,” Miear said.
As he was preparing changes in the classroom the General Assembly loosened its restrictions allowing playtime to be counted as instruction.
So last school year, Montgomery County rolled out twice a day recess for all elementary students.
WHY DO WE NEED PRESCHOOL? ACADEMICS? OR INTERACTION?
Children don’t learn through computer screens…they learn by doing. Is an online preschool really a preschool?
It used to be that parents sent their young children to kindergarten to prepare them for elementary school. Now things have developed to the point where parents are sending their 3 – 4-year-olds to preschool to prepare them for kindergarten! What is the world coming to?
It’s becoming a place where there is no time to be a child anymore. And that’s not all. It is becoming a world where children no longer run around and learn through play and interaction. No, thanks to online preschools they are now learning sitting on a couch, staring at a screen and clicking a mouse.
Parents of young children can now enroll their child in a cyber preschool that provides digital learning materials, activity guides and “homeroom teachers” online through a home computer, tablet, or smartphone. This is the latest way to start a child’s education, but is it sensible?
Preschool teaches important social skills
Think about it: why are children sent to preschool in the first place? Isn’t it because they need human interaction? One of the most important skills children learn in preschool is how to make friends. Life is about human relationships after all. How do you learn about making friends, sorting out differences, and obeying the rules when you are staring at a screen, looking for the right color to click on?
Children learn through play, not screens
Young children don’t learn best through computer-based instruction. They learn through activity, primarily play. They use all their senses, their entire bodies to learn. They learn through touch and smell, running and crawling, building houses with odd materials, making dams in the back yard after the rain. And most importantly, they learn about their place in a social context from their peers and teachers.
Defending the Early Years says “no” to online preschool.
All children deserve high quality early education, and we call on local, state, and federal agencies and policymakers to reject online preschools and invest in fully-funded, relationship-based, universal pre- kindergarten programs with proven long-term benefits.
BETTER THAN NOTHING?
Is an online preschool better than no preschool at all?
There are places where preschools don’t exist…rural areas, high poverty areas. Those children need unstructured play with other children, too. Does online preschool fill the gap? Is it better than nothing?
The truth is that it’s not a yes/no question. If we care about our future, we must make sure that “no preschool” and “online preschool” aren’t the only options.
“Children who come from families of means have always gone to and still go to terrific quality pre-K programs,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a co-founder of Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit campaign promoting universal pre-K. “Any program, you see the same thing — it’s kids engaged with teachers, blocks, paints and other kids. It’s all these things that everybody knows is quality.”
Not surprisingly, many early-education experts balk at the idea of preschool online. Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said a good preschool program typically developed a child’s social and emotional abilities, as well as ingraining lessons like thinking before you act.
“All of that can’t be done online,” he said.
But some advocates and Waterford Upstart argue that an online program is better than the current preschool options available to most low-income families, which are often nothing.