Sunday, January 27, 2013

Play: an endangered species in Early Childhood?

The word "kindergarten" is a lovely one - a children's garden.  To me this sums up a sort of magical place where children can run around and play.  All too often, however, kindergartens today are not places of play at all, but places where students have quite structured lessons in reading, maths and other subjects and then are subjected to standardized tests to find out how much they have been able to master.  All too often our "children's gardens" have been turned into "learning factories".

In the book The Best Schools, Thomas Armstrong writes about the developmental needs of 3 - 6 year olds and describes how young children are very different from older children.  He refers to the work of Piaget who discovered that at this age young children don't use logical operations in their mental processes as they make sense of their worlds, and to the work of brain researcher Marian Diamond who discovered that a 3 year old's brain is twice as active as an adults and that this activity remains constant until about the age of 9 or 10 when it starts dropping, reaching adult levels by the age of 18.  Because of this activity, he writes, social and emotional factors in the child's environment and a hands-on approach are very important in the process of brain development.  The most important provider of these developmental requirements is play which facilitates physical and sensorimotor development, promotes social learning, and supports emotional growth and cognitive development:
Play is an open-ended experience initiated by children that involves pretense, rough-and-tumble activity, or the spontaneous use of real objects for creative activity.
Armstrong writes that the rise of technologies is linked with the demise of play and he makes the following distinctions between what is developmentally appropriate and what is not:
  • A developmentally appropriate education:  values spontaneous play, multisensory and hands-on learning, natural environments and a child-centred approach to learning.
  • A developmentally inappropriate education: emphasises formal lessons in reading, writing, maths and other academic subjects, the use of high-tech tools, the assignment of homework, the use of standardized testing, a long school day and a teacher-centred approach to learning.
In schools where I have worked recently the pendulum is definitely swinging back towards play.  These schools have visited and seriously considered the approaches taken by the Reggio Emilia schools and the Creative Curriculum.  Many international schools are now building or creating separate Early Childhood centres within their schools where there is more emphasis on play and on choice.  Over the next few weeks I'm planning on spending more time in our kindergarten area looking at some of the changes they are putting into practice.

Photo Credit: Geomangio via Compfight cc

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