As the 2012 Olympic Games begin, there is an excitement that cannot be matched by any other sporting event. We will watch young athletes from all over the world come together in peace. Years of hard work and dedication will culminate in one sprint, dive, swimming lap or gymnastics routine. In my home, we watch the Olympics as a family. We talk about how wonderful it is to watch people of all cultures come together peacefully. We admire the dedication of the athletes as they worked hard to master every nuance their sport. Every time we have these discussions, it occurs to me that I am so fortunate to work with young children. I spend every day watching their Olympic effort to understand their world. I watch children interact peacefully regardless of cultural origins. I watch children do the hard work of childhood. I watch them play.
Play is the Olympic, herculean effort of childhood. It is through play that children lay the foundation for all future learning and social interaction. Children sitting in a pile of blocks are solving the mysteries of spatial relationships and gathering information about weight & balance. Children making jewelry from beads are not only honing their fine motor skills but are also experimenting with sorting and patterning. Preschoolers playing dress up are stretching their creative boundaries while developing their storytelling skills. A child quietly sitting and turning the pages of a book is developing early literacy skills. The child is showing an appreciation for the written word, studying pictures and beginning to find the main idea, predict the outcome and connect separate concepts. Those who share the book, the blocks or the beads are learning about the important social skills of sharing, cooperation and leadership. They succeed and build their self-esteem. The blocks fall and they learn to be persistent and try again.
There are lessons learned through play that children cannot learn anywhere else. We have learned from cognitive theorists such as Jean Piaget that we cannot open a child’s head and pour our knowledge into it. That is not how they learn. Young children must be given the time and opportunity to build their own knowledge. When they are able to interact with their world and experiment freely, they accomplish amazing feats. Imagine how much a child who builds a complex structure has learned. I hope you have had the opportunity to see their faces as they realize that they succeeded.
As an early childhood professional, how do I know that they have learned? When you take that structure down, they can build a new one. When you talk about the beaded necklace and ask for a bracelet, they once again pattern and sequence the colors. When you ask about the book the child sitting alone is holding, you are told something about what they are examining. The children are not regurgitating information to simply pass a test or complete a worksheet. They have acquired skills that they will use over and over again.
I hope you will join me in ensuring that our young children are given opportunities for social and cognitive growth in an environment in which they can really learn. Early learning does not look like children sitting at desks for 30 minutes doing worksheets. That is not how children develop skills that they will need to succeed in years to come. Early learning looks like children playing in the dramatic play costumes and pretend kitchens. Early learning looks like boys and girls working together to create a tall tower or the longest train track. Early learning looks like children looking at books and creating stories after they have spent time at a sand table or finger painting.
Parents and educators needs to work together to make sure that play does not disappear. We want to watch young children accomplish the efforts intended at that age – successful socialization, development of independence and a foundation that will support all future learning. When young children solve the puzzles of their world, they smile as proudly as any Olympic athlete.
Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
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