Play is Efficient

I have never met an early childhood teacher who complained about not having enough to do.

No matter where I travel, whether it’s a conference or a group training, I’ve never had a teacher say, “You know, I just wish they would give me a few more things to do.”

No one has ever said there aren’t enough activities to plan, standards to follow, objectives to reach, or children to give their undivided attention to.

Quite the opposite.

What I do hear is, “How am I supposed to do it all?”

Most early childhood teachers feel like they’re juggling a dozen eggs, just trying to keep from dropping one.

And so, when I talk about the importance of play in early childhood, I also hear, “How do I find time for play? Once the curriculum is covered we don’t have much time left.”

But here’s the secret. The big perspective shift.

Play isn’t one more egg to add to your juggling act. Play is the basket to put them in.

Because in play, children naturally work on multiple objectives at once. Play is efficient.

With worksheets and direct instruction, we often focus on one task at a time.

This is a math worksheet.

This is a handwriting worksheet.

These are shape flashcards.

But in play, children at the sensory table are working on motor skills, language skills, and social skills all at once, as they manipulate tools, talk about their new ideas, and work together with their friends.

Children at the dramatic play area are building pre-reading skills as they engage in representational play, allowing scarves to serve symbolically for soup, much like we allow letter arrangements to serve symbolically for words and ideas. At the same time, they’re also working on emotional awareness as they gauge their friends’ feelings in their storyline, and math skills as they set one dish down for each person at the table, showing one-to-one correspondence.

At the art table, several children are using their fine motor skills to glue a variety of shapes onto a page to form a collage. They’re exploring geometry with the shapes as they not only name them, but flip them and rotate them, finding just the right spot to glue them down. Their creativity and problem solving are in full gear as they take loose parts and pull them together to make their own unique designs. Social skill practice is a given for any child sitting at a table with other children, working with common materials. And language. Have you ever eavesdropped on the chatter that comes from a cluster of children, each intent on bringing something from imagination to form on a piece of paper? You can’t script a language experience like that!

We have to stop thinking of play as something we do after the curriculum is done. Play IS the curriculum.

As I’ve said many times before, play is the method – learning is the outcome.

Separating them creates a false dichotomy. It’s not an “either-or” scenario. Play and learning are method and outcome. Because it’s in play that the best early learning happens, and where it happens most efficiently.

If a school says they don’t have time to play, I would argue that school doesn’t have time NOT to play. If time is of the essence, then bring play in to increase your efficiency. Play is the ultimate multitasker.

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