About 20 years ago Robert Fulgham became a best-selling author with the release of his inspirational book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One couldn’t doubt his sincerity as he recalled the lessons he learned about fairness, sharing and order: lessons he attributed to time spent in the sandpile, at play.
Soon after that things began to change in America’s kindergartens.
With school boards and administrators clamoring for a “jump start” to higher test scores in later grades there was a great shift in the schedule towards academics and away from time spent “just playing.”
Many child development experts will tell you the same thing that Mr. Fulgham did in his simple way: it was never “just play.” Today’s kindergarteners may be better prepared, at their age, to recite the life cycle of the butterfly, including the use of the word “chrysalis.” (I’ve witnessed this!) In other words, they may be taught more.
They may, however, be learning less than kindergarteners in the past. Today’s kindergarteners may lack abilities to “self-regulate” (which is essential for sitting, focusing and enjoying a book) and be challenged in their use of executive functions of the brain (the kind that keep us from making impulsive choices) that are all developed in play.
Those of us who work in early childhood know that it has even been a challenge to maintain “play based” preschools.
15 years ago I attended an open house at my daughter’s preschool. As the teacher was describing all of the things that children learn at the various centers in the classroom while at play I noticed one father, in suit and tie, reading notes from his briefcase, only occasionally looking up. (A few years later he’d be tapping at his Blackberry.)
After the teacher was finished with her presentation she asked if there were any questions. That father was the first to raise his hand and ask, "We’ve heard all about all of the play that goes on here. How much time do you spend at this preschool just playing and how much time do you spend getting these children ready for school?”
The teacher, a veteran professional, silenced the man by confidently stating, “We do play here in preschool. We play because play is the context where children develop and express abilities across all domains of development - physical, cognitive and social.”
Then she added, matter-of-factly, “That is why we play.”
And, because of this sort of understanding and advocacy, my daughter’s hours at preschool were filled with play.
I dropped my daughter off at college last month. On the drive home I had enough time to think about how thankful I am that everything she really needed to know……she was allowed to learn in preschool.