My View: Let preschoolers, kindergartners play to learn
June 14th, 2012
06:34 AM ET

My View: Let preschoolers, kindergartners play to learn

Courtesy Kathleen Landwerhle/Champlain CollegeBy 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.

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Filed under: Early childhood • Preschool • Voices
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Kendy

    I too, agree with the article. I am blessed to be the pre-k teacher for a free public preschool program. Our program is a good mixture of some direct instruction but the majority of the time is spent in play, story and song. As new concepts are taught the children then go and take the new information and use it in their play, making it meaningful and expanding it. They enter kindergarten with the skills and knowledge needed for success and, on the whole, perform better than their peers who didn't attend preschool. We need to bridge the gap between what is DAP and what is expected in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  2. Crystal

    I agree whole heartedly. Children need and crave the play. I know that my own have had time to play and learn, explore and that is how I run my daycare. I observe them for the key things that they need to be developing and run with it. I am very laid back and easy going for the most part. I'm looking for a program for my four year old that will fit him. I know it's going to be hard. My oldest went to a preschool simply because he was ready for school but turned 5 in October. My next one went to a daycare with a preschool "tone". So now that I run my own, I feel I need to use someone else for the third one to learn to be away from me. I'm still uneasy about it. I may not do it. I don't like the pressure of what they want a kindergartener to know before starting. They want them to know their phone #, address, parent names, alphabet, count to 20, colors, everything we learned in kindergarten.

    June 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  3. Peggy

    When I moved to Texas four years ago, I could only find play-based preschools with costly tuition. Why do we want our lower income children in Texas not learning the way researchers note are best practices? It is very frustrating to know what is best practice and live in the state that is the birthplace of No Child Left Behind and in a district that believes the drill and kill method is the way to educate young children.

    June 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  4. littlestarslearning.blogspot

    I haven't come across any early childhood educators that DON'T feel this way. The frustration of administrations and public policy forcing good teachers to teach against everything they know is true will hopefully be changed. My preschool program is child-led, teacher-facilitated, play-based learning, and the children are more than ready for kindergarten when they leave here. Children need to use all their senses and movement when learning. The research is pretty clear on that.

    June 21, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  5. crosas84

    Definitely agree, I wish nursery schools would put this into practice, instead what they do is make parents buy books and have children sitting all day long filling up books, tracing, coloring, etc. Of course I realise tracing and coloring are important, however we all know a child learns through hands on activities

    June 19, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  6. Carol

    I am excited about play also. It takes special teachers who know how to set up learning experiences for children and to allow them the time and space to play. It cannot be a free for all. The push to have educated, licensed early childhood educators in preschools is a step in the right direction. Also, improving other early childhood environments such as childcare centers and home child cares is a step that needs to be remembered as well.

    June 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  7. Donn

    Isn't this what Waldorf schools are all about? Modern schools aren't worth a petcher of warm spit, to coin a phrase.

    June 15, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  8. jenna

    I'm so happy to see the increasing interest in play as an integral part of early childhood education. As Dr. Bongiorno pointed out, we already understand the value of play for our young adult learners. Why then do we expect rambunctious young children to sit passively to learn? As an early child specialist working to help teachers with classroom management, i often see that when children are active in their learning (the way their bodies and minds are programmed to be) "bad behavior" seems to fade away. Dr. B, keep spreading the word! Jenna Bilmes, consultant and author

    June 15, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  9. Ayme

    Nicely put Dr. Bongiorno!!!!
    I interviewed for a public school position yesterday and was asked what my 2nd grade classroom would look like at any given moment if someone were to walk in...I was elated as I was speaking about social curriculum and groups over here, and partners over there, and some kids over there playing literacy games, etc. etc. that the interviewer simply wrote down "PLAY!" and circled it and grinned. Not only is play vital within the early childhood setting, but it should continue on to future learning. Let's start making learning through play the norm across the board!

    June 15, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  10. Ben

    Professor Bongiorno... Your article is right on. Letting children play is not mutually exclusive with learning early math concepts and literacy in preschool. In fact, incorporating play in preschool classroom instruction makes learning fun for children!

    June 15, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  11. geralyndeyproject

    I concur! Thanks for your words, Professor Bongiorno. Many early childhood educators agree with you – and are working hard to help parents and politicians understand just what you have written here. Check out a new group called Defending the Early Years – a national coalition of early childhood educators. Right now we are conducting a survey.of early childhood professionals. The results of this research will be used to inform our efforts to advocate for more child-centered, humane, and effective policies in the education and care of young children. Please respond and spread the word.

    -Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin
    Director, Defending the Early Years

    June 14, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  12. Lois

    I have a licensed Family Home Childcare – I have worked in centers & family home childcare for 35 years. I changed my whole program when i saw the change's in the children when I went to "HANDS ON LEARNING" -Lisa Murphys is also a wonderful person who inspires all childcare providers too!

    June 14, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  13. Kat

    I totally agree! Learning through play is such a vital way children develop cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically. It is so important for every child to be allowed to learn this way. Standardized tests are a joke and should not be used to assess children's learning anymore

    June 14, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  14. shelli

    This is exactly why I'm homeschooling.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  15. Abby

    Dr. Bongiorno has hit the nail on the head, play is incredibly important for both children (and their educators). Play is not only about having fun (which is great for us emotionally) but, all through the animal kingdom, we see play as a part of life, even when calories are scarce. This is because play in all its forms develops social skills, problem-solving capabilities and physical stamina. In these times where children are at risk for developing all sorts of 'lifestyle' diseases, more play in schools could not be more welcome, and desperately neccesary.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  16. Cheryl

    As a retired preschool and early intervention teacher; I totally agree. Why can't the people who make the policies and curriculum understand this? We are stressing our children at younger and younger ages.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  17. Kelly

    I wish I had my hands on this article when I was teaching Pre-K and K in the public school system.I would have shared it with administrators often as we discussed the rigor of the curriculum and what is appropriate for the development of young children. As a counselor, I greatly appreciate Bongiorno's points about play promoting social and emotional development. I couldn't agree more with the play based philosophy exemplified in this article!

    June 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  18. Lois

    I was a teacher of Kindergarten for 35 years and I totally agree. It's a constant battle with those who set curriculum to get them to understand the value of hands on activities (play). I'm on our church Preschool Board now and am proud that we were voted best Preschool in our area. We definitely have a play based program with a lot of parent education.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. Alma

    I am a mother of 2 girls and a licensed family child care provider. I strongly believe in the "learning through play" philosophy! We follow that philosophy at home/daycare! 🙂

    June 14, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  20. Brennan

    Could not agree more with the play based learning model for young children!

    June 14, 2012 at 9:15 am |