When was the last time you entered a kindergarten classroom and sat down at one of the children's tables with your knees in your neck? If you have done so recently, then what we're about to tell you will not come as any surprise. Children need to play.
Indeed, authors like Vivian Gussin Paley suggest that play is a child's work. As adults, we tend to think of play as the antithesis to work. If you are at play, you are not at work and vice versa. In terms of school, some would argue if you are playing, you aren't doing any serious learning. Child development research is proving otherwise. Children need dramatic play, not only for socialization, but to develop self-control and to strengthen linguistic skills.
Over the years, educators have been pushed to make preschool and kindergarten more academic at the expense of time for play. No longer content to have students simply play, kindergarten curriculum changed, and now resembles a first grade classroom. Did we think we could keep up with the global race to succeed if we just started sooner? Because we all think our children are brilliant in the first two or three years of life, we assume they can handle an academic push as early as 3 years old.
What we are realizing is that we cannot allow academics to supplant play. Playing with peers serves as an important catalyst for learning coping strategies and self-control. For example, a child can play in the pint-size kitchen at home, but in the schoolroom others compete for time at the plastic sink or offer a compelling argument for Johnny to act as the baby in the family again. Through these activities, a child learns how to share, negotiate, lose and survive all with social graces in tact.
By adding an apron and a mixing bowl, a young child assumes the role of Mommy and can try on different attitudes and disciplines for her "misbehaving children." When we allow children the freedom to play and "practice life skills," we also help them develop self-control.
You might be asking yourself about the importance of self-control at this point. You will recall that in the 1960s, the marshmallow test was conducted at Stanford University. One at a time, 4-year-olds were given a marshmallow. Each child was told that the experimenter would leave the room. While he was gone, a child could eat the marshmallow right away, but if he or she could wait until the adult returned, then he would give the child a second marshmallow. Children showed a variety of responses. Some ate the marshmallow right away; some licked it; others played with it, and some were able to wait.
Years later, the researchers tracked those students and found that those who demonstrated self-control to wait had achieved much better academic success than their counterparts. The child who could wait 15 minutes had an SAT score that was, on average, 210 points higher than that of the kid who could wait only 30 seconds. The students who demonstrated self-control still wanted the sticky treat, but they had coping skills to distract themselves.
Children in early childhood programs are just developing the mental capacity for thinking in this metacognitive way. What is natural is playing. In the context of what they know so well, they can develop their thinking skills and learn many higher order skills. When we ground even literacy instruction in play, we see greater results. Children who want to play restaurant are motivated to write the menu. Creating a store in the play area means writing the specials and creating signs for the sales. Meaningful play such as this is literacy come to life through action for children, but it all begins with their life's work: play.
The effects may have even greater rewards when we allow children to play in nature, but we will leave that for another time.
- Linda Krulock graduated from West Liberty State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education and early childhood. She teaches senior kindergarten at Wheeling Country Day School. Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.