For those of us who have been leading the rallying cry to commit greater resources to early childhood education, we are living in encouraging times. The national focus on the word "gap" and the push for universal pre-K, in particular, should be celebrated and supported. Now, we also need to focus on those who are already behind before they start pre-K. We need to ensure that all of our children are truly ready to be in a classroom and able to take advantage of all educational opportunities. A key aspect of bridging this "pre-pre-K" gap is supporting the infusion of play into every child's early years.
Play has long been regarded by early childhood development experts as a critical element in early learning. It is valuable for building a whole array of skills from language to social-emotional behaviors to creativity. As Dr. Alison Gopnick, a well-known early childhood researcher, has noted, "children learn by playing with everyday objects and by pretending. The old standbys of water, sand, mixing bowls, and cardboard boxes are still the most effective ways for babies and young children to learn about the physical world while the whole world of pretend -- dolls and costumes and toy dishes -- is the most effective way to learn about the social world."
Similarly, Arja-Sisko Holappa of the Finnish National Board of Education describes play as a "very efficient way of learning for children. And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy."
In fact, we know that early learning "gaps" develop not only because of a lack of reading, but, more completely, because children do not have enough ongoing conversation and interactive activities in their daily home environments. Vocabulary building and consistent word exposure are activities that need to permeate everything that happens with a child during the day.
For example, if a parent and child build a block tower together, what the parent is actually modeling for a child is the teamwork required to build a tower together; the self-confidence gained when you are successful; how to deal with frustration when the tower falls down; and how to persevere and try again to build it taller and stronger. And, of course, when you are building the tower, you are using lots of vocabulary words, talking about how tall or short it is, fat, skinny, going under or over, etc.
So the game of building blocks literally becomes building blocks for life and vocabulary development!
But the value of play and the importance of engaging in it with your child is unfamiliar to many adults, particularly under-resourced parents. They may not have been shown how important it is, they are working multiple jobs and have little time, there are no play materials available, and play is not something they experienced when they were growing up. One of the comments that we often hear from families as they complete the Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP) is that what they found most beneficial was learning how to play with their children and how to make that interaction a joyful learning and bonding experience.
For these reasons, PCHP's model incorporates play as well as reading and conversation into its twice-weekly home visits. Every other week, the home visitor introduces a game, puzzle, or a toy, like blocks or farm animals, and uses it to model play and interaction activities rich in language and fun for parents and children to do together. For example, when a child plays a picture bingo game with their parent they are learning how to take turns and not grab or throw the pieces. They are learning how to deal with frustration and how to get along with others, skills that are critical to success in the classroom.
So as we think about what it is really going to take to bridge achievement gaps and ensure school readiness and life readiness for all of our children, remember that when we think of workforce development for two-three year olds, play is the operative word!