Play vs. Learning: It Isn’t a Competition

More and more often, I notice articles, social media posts and television hosts asking the question “Should your early learner be playing or learning?”  The question might be disguised in a sensational headline or a TV soundbite as alleged proof that learning is more important than playing.  Just like so many other stories vying for your attention, these claims are a means of getting you to click or tune in and are not based in best practices for teaching young children. 

We’ve learned not to believe everything we read and that couldn’t be truer than about the information being disseminated regarding learning and play.  It isn’t a competition.  Children do not either learn or play.  They learn while they play.  Early learning requires your children to be engaged, to have their curiosity piqued and to be interactive with their environment.  Young children learn best, learn the most and learn more deeply while they play. 

Think about the best learning experience you have ever had in your life.  It doesn’t matter if that experience was in preschool, elementary school, high school or college.  Just remember it.  I am certain that your best learning experience – when you were most engaged in adding to your knowledge – was not while you were completing a workbook page or reciting memorized facts.  It is far more likely that you were physically or emotionally engaged in a far more encompassing experience.  How do I know that?  It is how all humans learn best.

Early learners need to play to understand their world.  They need to be the center of the action and we need to guide them to add to their knowledge while they are doing what they love best.  We know from Jean Piaget, the theorist who defined the Stages of Cognitive Development, that children require environmental stimuli to add to their learning.  Children’s patterns of thought are changed not by what we tell them but by what they do and experience.  Years after developing and publishing his theories that would become a basis for today’s early childhood education, Piaget said, ““Our real problem is – what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?” 1 

It is while children are at play that you and I can more easily add to their vocabulary, math concepts, critical thinking skills, ability to reason and foster a love of learning.  We need to have meaning conversations with children while they are engaged in their choice of activity.  Ask good questions and remember that learning, particularly in the early childhood years which are defined as birth to age 8, does not look like children at desks.  Learning looks like children building, creating and exploring.

Don’t believe everything you hear – learning and play are not two separate things.  They are intertwined and when we attempt to separate them, we weaken the experience.


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