“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about”, Jean Piaget
Where once the model preschool or kindergarten lesson centered around a circle carpet and gaggle of curious toddlers, in recent decades desks, worksheets, a lecturing teacher, and even computers have been crowding into class time that traditionally focused on play. At its most extreme, some children are greeted by worksheets waiting for them at their desks. Though rare, there’s the occasional classroom devoid of toys. Indeed, academic preschool curriculum and others like it are “the exception rather than the rule,” said Sheila Smith, director of the early childhood program at the National Center for Children in Poverty.
But a growing body of research supports the very real benefits of exploratory and playful learning experiences. A 2007 study published in Science evaluated a play-based program, Tools of the Mind, against a non-play-based one. After two years in the play-oriented classrooms, children scored better on self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The self-control kids learn through interacting and playing with others has an academic payoff, too; it’s more strongly correlated with future academic success than either IQ or early reading and math skills.
Two forthcoming studies in the journal Cognition show the extent to which direct, teacher-initiated learning can limit and dampen children’s creativity and curiosity. In one study, when explicitly taught a singular way of playing with a new toy that had multiple facets, kids played with it for less time and fewer discovered its other features. However, another group of kids who were shown, as if by accident, the same feature of the toy were more likely to uncover new and different ways to play with it. A second study also showed that when children are instructed on how to do something, they tend to over-imitate or include superfluous actions.
Maybe the most important thing for parents to learn is that they can finally relax a little and let kids go back to doing what they do best.
“Learning from adults is fast tracking, rather than learning by trial and error,” said Daphna Buchsbaum, an author on one of the studies. And here’s where hyper-academics should take note: that fast-tracking can translate into limited problem-solving skills and diminished creativity, a dimension that some educators say we ought to be testing. In creativity tests, there’s no single correct answer, but many.
To that end, Tools and similar play-oriented classrooms provide a variety of activity centers with simple props that can be manipulated in a variety of ways. Instead of battery-operated toys, there are boxes, sheets, logs, and building blocks. “If you give them simple building props, they will make what they need. The simpler the materials, the more they can be adjusted,” said Deborah Leong, Tools’ co-developer.
Excerpted from “Let Preschoolers Play” by Joyce Tang for The Daily Beast. Published April 5, 2011.