Originally published in HFP Newsletter — June 2009
by Susan Eisman
Play is the optimal venue for learning. Only in play is there deep satisfaction, joy and humor where laughing eyes and bouncing bodies are welcome and expected. Preschoolers are meant to joke, move and invent.
New to this world, preschoolers bring vigor and freshness that some academic institutions
squelch in the name of education. My philosophy mirrors that of the score of early childhood advocates who agree with Elkind’s assertion: “Unscheduled, imaginative play goes a long way toward preparing children for both academic and social successes.” I am grateful to teach at a program that understands the profound value of self-directed play.
Young children eagerly meet up with their friends, inviting them into play through a myriad of scripts. These ideas may come from an intermingling of familiar stories in books and movies, lived experiences, and made up circumstances. Assuming characters with specific roles and offering one plot turn after the other, children thrive in their imaginations. They explore language, exchange ideas, and negotiate with peers. They use their bodies, not just their minds, implementing the variety of materials and props available to them to further express themselves. In this way, children learn joyfully and with ease.
Play is defined as children’s “inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy.”
– David Elkind, Ph.D. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally
Spontaneous and continued storytelling is a key aspect of literacy development; and it is a natural pursuit of children who are given the time and respect to pursue their delights. Renowned author Vivian Gussin Paley affirms: “Fantasy play is the glue, that binds together all other pursuits, including the early childhood teaching of reading and writing skills.” At HFP fruitful play/learning interactions take place in every corner of the classroom and throughout the outdoor play area, every day.
The following is one small example:
Caden and Aidan are close friends and experienced players. They continually share ideas and great enthusiasm as they play together. One morning, they build play dough structures, narrating their actions as they sculpt. There are others playing adjacent to Caden and Aidan and the collective play is quite loud. Without deeper investigation, some folks might dismiss their engagement as too boisterous and disruptive to the classroom. Some might overlook that each child at the table is invested in manipulation, investigation, storytelling, creativity, connection-making or some other valuable learning pursuit. I join the play dough table and jot down what I hear. Aidan and Caden immediately grow curious in what I’ve documented and ask me to read it to them. As I mirror back their words and actions, they smile proudly and make an addition, bringing their story to a satisfying end.