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It’s Not “Just” Play

“So if you’re not teaching the children academics, what do they do all day?”

I get this question a lot. From student’s well-meaning family members, my own family members, other educators, curious friends…

My answer? “They play.”

At least that’s my abbreviated answer. There is a whole lot more to that answer and it is strongly supported by recent scientific studies, not to mention the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. If you do a simple Google search on the importance of play the results are somewhat overwhelming, but confirm what I think we all know: Young children learn through play. It’s not “just” play.

Jack Petrash makes a very powerful statement in his book Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out: “If teachers are concerned with children’s proper brain development and yet reluctant to impose early academic instruction, what types of activities should they incorporate to ‘guide the brain in its correct course of development?’ The answer is simple: young children will learn by doing. And what young children love to do most is play.” (pg. 38)

Take a simple scene that occurs quite regularly in our play yard at our preschool in Jacksonville FL. Two children are playing in the mud kitchen. They are each mixing their own concoction of sand, leaves, mulch and mulberries. One child wants to blend the two concoctions, the other child wants to keep them separate. They come up with a plan to find a third bowl and mix only some of each concoction into this bowl, thus keeping some of it separate. These two children have reached a compromise.

This scenario illustrates how our Jacksonville Beach kindergarten and preschool play scenario encourages children to learn to share, how to compromise, and how to cooperate within a peer group. Petrash sums this up by stating, “Play develops emotional maturity through social interactions.” I am fairly certain that we can all think of at least one adult who has yet to develop these skills and thus are not the most enjoyable person to be around!

Another concern that is often voiced to me is that a play-based curriculum does not help prepare a child for the rigors of academics. Actually, it’s just the opposite. In Petrash’s book he quotes Joseph Chilton Pearce, an author on human intelligence and creativity: “Play is the royal road to childhood happiness and adult brilliance…Children at play are not doing one thing with their hands or bodies, thinking something else in their minds, and speaking something else with their voice…They are totally absorbed in their play-world,…Through this discipline, true concentration and one-pointedness develop.”

In short, play actually helps to develop and lengthen a child’s attention span. It is this same attention span that will later be turned towards academic work. Not to mention the development of creative thinking, ability to “think outside the box”, and ponder various scenarios before choosing one that they think may work. This is real world stuff! Concerns about a child’s attention span are big news today! And yet research is consistently showing that it is play, and not early academics, that is strengthening all of these important skills. Research also shows that media and technology do not provide such benefits, but that’s for another day!

Warmly, Miss Anna

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