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The Importance of Play in Young Children's Learning

 I have often wondered what would happen if the teachers who can see what is happening would stand up and protest, not individually, but together, as a united force. I was fascinated, therefore, to read this past June about the united stand taken that month by kindergarten teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts. Twenty-seven of the 34 public school kindergarten teachers in Brookline signed a letter that they read aloud at a meeting of the Brookline School Committee. 

 Here, in part, is what the letter said  "We have dedicated our careers to teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, and we see that some current practices are leaving an everlasting negative impact on our students’ social-emotional well- being. Therefore, we are here tonight to share with you our concerns about a new kind of gap that is emerging in Brookline Kindergarten. It is a "reality gap"—a gap between the way research shows that young children learn best and the curriculum the district requires us to teach. It is a reality gap between Brookline educational values and what is actually happening to children in our classrooms.

“We have all worked with our literacy coaches and specialists to implement the various reading and writing lessons with fidelity. However, block scheduling—90-minute reading and writing blocks—comes at the expense of thematic units, play-based learning, and social-emotional opportunities. “We are seeing the effects of this loss. We see many of our Kindergartners struggle with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read. … It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, "I don’t know how to read, I hate reading, I hate school, I am not good at anything." 

This is our greatest concern. “Current academic pressures on 5- and 6-year-olds are contributing to increasing challenges with our kindergartners ability to self-regulate, to be independent and creative. …

Study after study has shown that young children need time to play, but in Brookline, because of academic demands, time for play-based learning has been shortened and, on some days, eliminated entirely. As Kindergarten teachers know,   play is not frivolous; it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function, which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions. It helps children learn to persevere, increase attention and navigate emotions.

 “Young children are also meant to move around and explore. Many children who sit for long periods of time experience frustration, muscle cramps, and disruptive behaviors. We have seen an increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD and behavior issues within our schools and we know why this is happening. Yet, we are doing things that will only exacerbate the problem rather than make it better.

 “We are not advancing equity. As mentioned with play and social-emotional development, the district is asking us to teach our children in ways that reduce equity in the classroom. We are told that everything has to be the same. Please think about what ‘the same’ means. It is not uniquely tailored to maximize the joy and learning for every single child. Standardization is not equity.

 “Where once teachers were trusted to use their judgment and teach to the needs of each unique class, now we are directed to follow set curricula from textbooks. We are being given directives, not empowerment for our students. “Let’s envision our children being excited to come to school each day, developing a deep love of learning, having confidence in their abilities as learners, strengthening social-emotional skills, creating deep relationships with peers and teachers, and being part of a community of learners. Imagine a classroom where teachers are spending time working directly with students, forming trusting relationships, and engaging in meaningful teaching experiences that address students’ needs as a whole.

 Children  learn best through play and real experiences that allow them to explore and make connections, build some background knowledge, and develop problem solving skills. The play can be purposeful (teacher guided), but there also needs to be time for children to explore freely without teacher direction. This is essential in the development of curiosity, and the ability to follow an idea or a project through. This is the bedrock of developmentally appropriate practice. In fact, it is the bedrock of lifelong learning .   a place where children explore relationships with others in order to develop a sense of empathy. It can be a place where they master amicable and respectful dialogue with their peers. It can be a place where they learn how to justify their own ideas and solve problems. Imagine a classroom where children learn how to fail, so they can try again and find their way. “We ask you to envision with us a future in which our children are deeply engaged in fun, integrated content areas. Envision with us classrooms where learning to read is fun, purposeful engaging and organic. 

Imagine a future where love of learning, not test-based performance, returns to the heart of our children’s very first educational experiences.”