The Power of Play

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By Mary Shea

From the moment they’re born, children try to make sense of their environment and actively participate in it. They observe behaviors of others and mimic actions and words that appear to have meaning and function. Every experience they have informs them about people, objects, events, and routines in the environment.

Children self-direct this learning through explorations, investigations, and experimentations that they design. To the adult, it looks like play. But, to the child, the fantasy of pretend situations and acting out observed scenarios is serious work. Beyond the immediate activity, abstract thinking and metacognition are evolving.

In the work they organize, children take control—they make decisions about the process and order of doing things. Just watch a child playing with water toys in a bathtub, playing with trucks in a sandbox, or building sandcastles at the beach. Participation doesn’t wane until the child is satisfied; in his activity, the child remains focused and attentive. Such autonomy builds confidence and awareness that he can activate, engage, and cause learning—that a locus of control resides within him.

Effective teachers recognize the timeless characteristic of children’s play and organize early childhood classrooms to optimize the power of it. Centers and play areas are designed to pique interest, put children in charge, offer soft teaching (i.e., casual, situational), and scaffold learners’ efforts with feedback and gentle nudges to take a next step. Soft teaching responds to teachable moments; it encourages, coaches, and answers questions to support what the learner is trying to do.

The social aspect of learning is reflected in the collaborative structure of work at such centers; tasks reflect an array of content topics (e.g., science, community, health) and doing with others. Literacy processes (i.e., listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and visually representing) and language skills are naturally woven into the fabric of center work as tools for engaging with others, gathering knowledge, thinking, and expressing knowledge.

Literacy props in centers spark literacy behaviors with purpose—all performed at the child’s developmental level with every approximation accepted and respected. There’s an understanding that growth takes time; it comes with immersion, demonstration, practice, and feedback. These props are simple, inexpensive items (e.g., paper, pads, pencils, stampers). Transformed by the teacher’s suggestions and children’s imagination, the props become irresistible. Examples include:

  • A pad in the kitchen area for writing a shopping list or recipe
  • A journal in the science center to record observations of the class pet (e.g., fish, gerbil)
  • A patient chart for recording symptoms in the health center
  • Stampers and stickers for posting mail and packages in the post office
  • Posters for making road signs for play with cars and trucks

Teachers’ mindfulness in designing early childhood classrooms that honor play as the child’s domain for self-directed learning is reflected in the way they sensitively inspire, coach, and scaffold every step; they continuously allow children to have voice and choice. Like the thread from a spider that anchors it to its web, durable learning connects to the purpose, schemata, and passions of learners in these classrooms.