If Children Are for Learning, Then Let Them Play

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In her TEDTalk, Alison Gopnik provides ample evidence to support her claim that "children are for learning," demonstrating that young children are capable of, and quite good at, developing and testing hypotheses to make sense of the world around them. Even without seeing her compelling footage of children figuring out how a Blicket Detector works, most early childhood professionals and parents of young children, who interact with and observe children at play on a daily basis, would agree with Gopnik's assertions. Indeed, what is taken for granted in the early childhood community -- that play and exploration are critical for learning -- is often lost in broader debates about how to improve the American education system.

One recent example of this can be found in the considerable media attention that early childhood education has received since the president announced his "Preschool for All" proposal in February. A main goal of this proposal is to increase access to public prekindergarten (preK) programs for four-year-olds in order to improve children's academic and economic outcomes. As someone who studies young children's early education experiences and believes in the importance of early care and learning programs, I am thrilled that early childhood education is receiving so much attention. My enthusiasm is tempered, however, when I consider what is missing from discussions about the need to expand access to high-quality pre-K programs. I worry that the focus on developing standards and assessment measures to frame and evaluate children's learning in pre-K programs obscures the need to think deeply about what children in these programs should be doing on a daily basis.

Children today spend less time playing -- both at home and in school -- than they have in the past. -- Bethany Wilinski

Gopnik's TEDTalk reminds us that one of the things children should be doing on a daily basis is playing. Children today spend less time playing -- both at home and in school -- than they have in the past. The decline of play coincides with the increased prevalence of teaching academic skills in pre-K and kindergarten and measuring children's learning outcomes with test scores. This shift is occurring in spite of research which shows that play builds a foundation for later learning by fostering cognitive development, critical thinking, self-regulation, and problem-solving skills. Indeed, what is often lost in the drive to improve achievement is a focus on the very experiences that foster young children's learning: opportunities for play and authentic engagement with the world around them.

Gopnik's findings -- that four-year-olds are better at finding out unlikely probabilities than adults, and that play is really a series of experiments -- speak to the importance of preserving opportunities for play in early childhood settings. For skilled and attentive early childhood professionals, playtime is an opportunity to listen carefully to children's hypotheses about the way the world works and to uncover the deep content knowledge learned through play. As they ask children questions about their play, teachers enhance and extend children's learning. To ensure that these critical dialogues occur, we need pre-K and kindergarten teachers who understand how young children develop and learn, and can create environments that foster children's engagement in play activities that promote learning across academic and social domains.

Unfortunately, increased pressure to focus on content area activities (mostly literacy and math) that will prepare children for standardized tests is forcing preK and kindergarten teachers like the ones I work with in Wisconsin to significantly decrease or eliminate opportunities for self-directed play. In contrast to this narrowing of the curriculum and children's early learning experiences, Gopnik's work is a reminder that children are inherently creative, divergent thinkers, and that these attributes are both productive and worthy of our attention. Children arrive at school equipped with the skills and curiosity they need to learn. It is our job as adults to ensure that our concerns about learning and achievement do not lead to the elimination of the very activities and experiences through which children learn best.

The author is a member of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

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