Last week, NIEER — the National Institute for Early Education Research — wrapped up a two-week blog forum on the importance of play in early childhood education.
In these blog posts, experts consider the tension that can arise between academics and play. NIEER’s inaugural post explains, “Concerns about whether preschool and kindergarten have become too stressful and regimented are met head on with concerns that they are academically weak and fail to cognitively challenge children.”
The posts are meant to be “valuable resources as parents, teachers, and policymakers strive to ensure play has its place in pre-K.”
In addition to the blogs, NIEER has posted a recommended reading list “to keep the conversation going.”
What the Blogs Say
In a blog post titled “Play, Mathematics, and False Dichotomies,” University of Denver professors Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama write, “Let’s stop the cycle of ‘abuse’—or at least confusion—that stems from false dichotomies in early education. ‘Play vs. academics’ is arguably the main one. Of course children should play. But this does not mean they should not learn, and even play, with mathematics.”
Children naturally engage in math during free play, the blog post says. In addition:
“Math and literacy instruction increase the quality of young children’s play. Children in classrooms with a stronger emphasis on literacy or math are more likely to engage in a higher quality of social-dramatic play. The new ideas energize high-level play activity. Thus, high-quality instruction in math and high-quality free play do not have to “compete” for time in the classroom. Doing both makes each richer.”
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In the blog “Playful Learning: Where a Rich Curriculum Meets a Playful Pedagogy,” Temple University professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and University of Delaware professor Roberta Michnick Golinkoff write about the “Capulets and Montagues of early childhood” who have “long battled over their vision for a perfect preschool education.”
“Should young children be immersed in a core curriculum replete with numbers and letters or in a playful context that stimulates creative discovery? The ‘preschool war’ leaves educators torn and embattled politicians in deadlock,” they note.
Reviewing a number of research studies, the two blog authors say that the evidence “cries for some way to unite the warring factions in a more cohesive and inclusive approach to preschool education.”
Their solution is to opt for “playful learning” which “offers one way to reframe the debate by nesting a rich core curriculum within a playful pedagogy.”
They add: “Tests of playful learning are admittedly in their infancy (or maybe their toddlerhood), and as Lillard et al., (2013) rightly argue, much more research needs to be done to secure the relationship between aspects of play and domains of learning. Yet, the findings from our work and others suggest a rapprochement between the Capulets and the Montagues in the preschool debates. It is possible to have a curriculum rich in learning goals that is delivered in a playful pedagogy.”
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In “Teacher-led? Child-guided? Find the Balance in Preschool Classrooms,” NIEER Assistant Research Professor Kimberly Brenneman explains how she and her colleagues tested the idea that teaching a science lesson to a class might enhance play.
“We introduced kids to the function of a balance scale during morning meeting. The lesson was interactive, and kids got to hold items to feel which was heavier, then put them on the scale to find out that the side with the heavier item always tipped down. Then we tested a few pairs of items that were hard to distinguish by felt weight.”
After the lesson, the scale was placed back in the science area with no further comment from the adults.
“Meanwhile, we observed the science area and counted the number of minutes that children were present there. We had done similar counts prior to the balance scale intervention and found few children went to the science area, and no child ever touched the balance scale. After the intervention, many children went to the science area to explore the balance scale and, while doing so, found lots of other interesting objects and possibilities for play. Their knowledge of the function of the scale also increased, compared to their earlier knowledge and to that of children who hadn’t participated in the balance scale intervention.”
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Eye on Early Education has covered the critical issue of play in previous posts. As we wrote in August, 2012, “A reporter once called about a story she was pursuing about ‘the conflict between play and curriculum’ in preschool. Conflict? What conflict? In preschool, I told her, play is the curriculum.”
And as we wrote in May, 2012, about a Psychology Today article, “there is more to play than swings, jungle gyms and games of tag on the recess playground. Imaginative play – make-believe and pretend – is important for young children’s healthy development.”
Now the challenge is to keep sharing information about the importance of play with parents, policymakers and the early childhood field, so that there is a broader understanding of the role of play in supporting children’s early development.