PLAY: A four-letter word banned in early childhood?

Several decades ago, early childhood experts began calling play “the work of children.” The goal was to elevate the importance of play in the minds of adults. Experts were helping teachers, parents and policymakers understand that what is happening in everyday play experiences of children is essential to healthy development.

As childcare providers work to legitimize the daily care and education of young children beyond babysitting, and advocates promote the allocation of funds in early education, we have adopted the “work” and “not play” as an essential concept of early childhood.

Childcare provider at preschool center

As I work with elementary leadership teams who are adding pre-kindergarten programs to the public school settings, the schedules often reflect teacher-directed expectations of core competencies. If play on the scheduled, it is labeled, “Work Time” or “Active Learning Time.”

It rarely is called play.

While this may seem like the work of a wordsmith, there are many unintended consequences of changing from play to work. In infant through pre-kindergarten classrooms, changes are happening. For example in many settings:

  • Early childhood activities are primarily teacher-directed.
  • Play and recess become supervision time, not engagement time for teachers.
  • Classroom materials become limited to areas and single uses. Children are pressured to use materials in the “right way.”
  • Activities become about getting correct answers.

In a recent interviewed with Jill Vialet, Founder of Playworks, she asked me why the curriculum I developed for infants, toddlers and threes’ is titled PLAYbook?

It is a simple answer. Play is being!Directors of childcare centers use PLAYbook to stay organized

For young children play is at the heart of every developmental accomplishment.

For infants, play is what happens during wake time that is not eating, diaper changing, reading or rocking. Play is the exploration of self and other. It is the discovery of “what happens?”

While infants can sustain interest on their own for short periods of time, it is the interactions with adults that makes play meaningful. Shared positive interactions such as rolling a ball, dumping out blocks, and engaging in peek-a-boo are the ingredients of successful play.

For toddlers, play is no more and no less than the child-centered process of discovery, repetition, and exploration. It is through play that toddlers learn the lessons of gravity. They learn about one-to-one correspondence. And they discover hundreds of science and math principles.

Each time a toddler engages with materials, they are bringing new brain connections to the activity. They are discovering and rediscovering possibilities. While it may be more efficient to tell the toddler how to do the activity in the “right way,” these “experiments” are building connections in the brain. Noticing and narrating the toddlers’ play actions are the actions of teaching.

By the end of the third year, play begins to include imagination. Three-year-olds can extend play into “what if” possibilities. At this age, children add to play by exploring social relationships. Trains, dolls, and drawings begin to take on meaning beyond the here-and-now.

Under the guidance of teachers, three-year-olds can start to collaborate with play themes and together achieve goals. For example, children cooperate to feed all of the dolls or bring them all to beds. Teachers can facilitate the sequence, “First we feed the babies, and then we put them to bed!” Extending the play theme helps threes’ prolong their attention and practice first-then progressions.

Keys to facilitating play:

  • Children lead. Adults follow – remembering that it is not what adults know, it is what children are learning!
  • Integrate small and large muscle activities throughout play. Children learn through movement. The brain and the body are connected!
  • Provide play areas where both adults and children can feel comfortable. Adult availability, particularly in the early years, is as important as having toys and materials within reach.
  • Create play environments that are safe and offer opportunities to explore materials in novel and imaginative ways.
  • Narrate and use rich language to describe children’s actions.
  • Use adults to help redirect and extend engagement, identify feelings and minimize conflicts.

Mature, make-believe play does not bloom until children are four- and five-years-of-age. At this stage of development, children engage in imaginative play to work out their understanding of how the world works, explore their desires and emotions, and begin to build themes independent of their actual experiences. It is the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten years where imagination flourishes and can be used to help children understand more about themselves, their emotions, relationships, and self-directed learning.

So let’s not ban this four-letter word. Let’s embrace the rich developmental sequence, and self-regulatory experiences play provides.



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Tranforming our understanding of wellbeing by seeing from the child's point of view.

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