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March 13, 2008

Learning Through Play

Recently, the early childhood world has been buzzing about an NPR story on the importance of play.  This was music to the ears of educators like me in the "pro-play" choir!

What I found most fascinating about the story was the research reported, which showed strong positive gains for children who experienced a play-based curriculum in pre-k.  All too often, pre-k teachers find themselves defending the use of play in the classroom to administrators who are unfamiliar with best practices in early childhood classrooms. By attesting to the importance of play this information may also help ease the fears of those parents who feel public pre-k is too academic.  Whether you are a parent or a teacher, it is research such as this, presented to a national audience, that can help raise awareness of the central role of play in the pre-k classroom.

The article discusses "executive function" and how it has drastically declined in our population in recent years.

Executive function has a number of elements, such as working memory and cognitive flexibility. But perhaps the most important is self-regulation - the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline....  Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.

Unfortunately, play has changed dramatically during the past half-century, and according to many psychological researchers, the play that kids engage in today does not help them build executive function skills.

This really struck a chord in me as I have definitely noticed a change in my students over the years. Long before I read this article I was calling this phenomena “t.v. syndrome” because the students appear to be watching t.v instead of participating in class.

I spend the first two months of the school year showing students appropriate behaviors during circle time. For example, when I am reading a story their eyes glaze over and their jaws go slack; some lay on the floor like they are watching t.v. They will not interact with me and can’t answer even the simplest of questions like, “What color was the cat in the story?” When I sing a song such as Five Red Apples the slack jaws and glassy eyes persist, and I can’t get them to sing with me and hold up five fingers. These problems spill over into play time as well. Most students will wander around aimlessly during play time unless shown how to play with each other and each item, specifically.

What is most troublesome, however, is their lack of empathy, which I feel directly relates to a decline in their executive function. In the beginning of the year if I stumble or pinch my finger in the door the students will laugh. It’s almost as if they are watching an episode of Tom & Jerry instead of a real person. I have learned over time to actually teach them how to interact and respond to these types of situations. If somebody cries, get them a tissue; if somebody trips or falls, help them up and ask if they are o.k.

The article also mentions a program called "Tools of the Mind" that helps children develop their executive function.  I have never heard of this program before, but perhaps it warrants further investigation.  I would love to hear comments from anybody who has used Tools of the Mind in their classroom. 

When we provide opportunities for children to engage in play in the classroom we are allowing them to exercise their executive function and self-regulation skills, which the NPR article points out are extremely important parts of their development.


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