Thursday, October 6, 2011

Play vs. Learning

In the early childhood field, the debate over play vs. learning is ever-present. There are those who feel strongly that children should be engaged in formal, teacher-led learning activities. Children need to learn their colors, shapes, numbers and abc's and the earlier we introduce them the better they will learn. Then there is the opposing view that the early childhood years should be all about play. Children need unstructured play to explore and teachers should give them ample space and time to do so.

But, why does it have to be either/or? Why can't that learning happen through play? As I was looking back at some photos from the last two weeks, I came across some pictures of a group of two-year-olds engaged in playing 'sleepy,' as they called it. We had spent the morning making applesauce and tasting different kinds of apples. The children were free to select yellow, red, or green apples at snack and the teachers talked with them about the ones they liked or didn't like. We talked about the colors of the apples and the tastes. Children who wanted to help make the applesauce were given plastic knives and a plate to practice cutting their apples. We talked about how hard the apples were to cut, different ways to use the knives and many other things. We talked about how to cook the apples to make applesauce and how to be safe in the kitchen around the stove. This was obviously a planned activity for the day with lots of learning potential.

But, I think they learned just as much, if not more, when this same group of children joined together in pretend play. One of the boys laid himself down on the floor and tried to cover himself with a blanket, saying he was going to sleep. Another child joined and another until there 4-5 of them playing this game together. They took turns covering each other up or being the ones to sleep. They rubbed each others backs, like we do for them at nap time. They told us (more than once, I might add!), "Shh! Be quiet. I'm going to sleep."  This activity went on for over a half hour, without very little support or intervention from the teachers. For the most part, we sat back and watched or listened when they included us in their conversations.

Many outsiders walking in on this activity would likely think the children were 'just playing.' But, the children were learning valuable skills as they sustained this activity. They had to negotiate with each other to decide which role they would play, what color scarf or blanket  they could have or who would rub their back. They practiced conversation skills and turn taking. They learned about spatial relationships, shape and size as they figured out which blankets covered them up. They solved problems when they ran out of blankets and found scarves to substitute. They practiced naming colors and using words for different sizes, increasing their vocabulary.  They practiced focusing on the same activity for an extended period of time.  Toddlers can sustain an activity for extended periods when they are interested and not interrupted.
It's Playtime at hands on : as we grow
They were so engaged in this activity that we didn't interrupt even though it was past their normal lunch time. We waited for them to us and let us know they were wither hungry or finished with the game. We could have interrupted them in order to stay on our regular schedule and manage all the routine care activities for the day. But if we had, they would have missed out on so much. None of this was planned, beyond providing the materials and setting the interest areas up in an inviting way, and look at all the learning that happened.

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