By Laurel Bongiorno, Special to CNN.
Editor’s note: Professor Laurel Bongiorno is director of the master’s degree program in early childhood education at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is working on a book on the value of play in early childhood development.
(CNN) - Young children, ages 3 to 5, learn through play at home. It’s easy to observe.
But then preschool and kindergarten arrive all of a sudden, and children in today’s school environment are often subjected to scripted lessons and direct instruction.
Whether it’s classic theorists such as Jean Piaget or contemporary researchers such as David Elkind, there is general agreement that children learn through hands-on experience, through their play.
So why the disconnect? Why the pressure on teachers to “teach to the (standardized) test”? And why the misconception that testing addresses accountability? Studies show children are at their best during play, so shouldn’t we observe and assess them during play?
My research shows that Mom and Dad help their child develop vocabulary and letter recognition through songs, games and books filled with fun stories. They clearly understand the connection between play and learning.
Not only do they see the benefit of language and literacy play, but they also describe how their children develop physically through running, jumping and climbing, and how they advance small motor skills by stacking blocks, drawing with markers and squeezing glue bottles. In these areas, play is what matters, too.
It’s also obvious to the parents I’ve surveyed that social and emotional development is promoted through play. Children express their feelings during play, experience winning and losing through games, and maneuver friendships and negotiating roles during pretend play. Think about the social elements of five children staying in the roles involved in setting up and playing house, car wash or school.
Play also promotes cognitive learning, what once was labeled the “3 R’s” (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic). Parents see their children practice math skills and color identification during board games, and use rich, contextual information to set up pretend play scenarios. For example, children have to know a lot of facts and vocabulary to play a firefighter, shop owner or veterinarian.
One parent described how her child used superlatives such as higher and faster when jumping on a small trampoline, building both the child’s physical strength and vocabulary simultaneously. Another parent sums up the pervasive nature of play in a child’s life: “For them, it’s all the time, right?”
Yet I was disappointed to find that parents were less confident that play was appropriate once their children arrived at school. The classroom for some was teacher-directed and work sheet-heavy. No wonder these parents doubted their beliefs about the learning value of play.
The shame of it is that it is too early for these children to be just sitting listening to the teacher. There are preschools and kindergartens where children are engaged in play as the primary learning activity. I strongly urge parents to search them out and observe them before it’s time for their child to go to school. Look for environments that, for example, solidify writing skills without work sheets but rather by having children create restaurant menus.
Play may look a little different in school than at home, so I encourage parents to read about and observe play-based curricula. I encourage parents to ask questions, talk with teachers, early childhood administrators and principals about schools being ready for the children, in contrast to children being ready for the schools.
Schools need to recognize children’s natural avenue for learning. Advocate for time for play to promote language, cognitive, physical, and social and emotional development. Watch the children happily succeed.
Essentially, learning through play for preschoolers and kindergartners is like the lab for college science students. Hands-on experience - children’s play - is where the abstract comes to life. Children need the opportunity for extended periods of play so they can solidify their learning and development.
Policymakers, administrators, teachers and parents are all advocating for their children’s successful learning and development. We all want the best for children. Let’s pay attention to what they tell us every day about how they learn.
Let’s let them play.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laurel Bongiorno.