The Importance of Play in Kindy Years

19 May 2017

A few months ago Senator David Leyonhjelm reduced childcare workers' jobs to merely 'wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other'. His statement caused much indignation and rightfully so. At Glennie we understand the incredibly vital role that these staff play in preparing the little people for formal education and life in general.

Below is a piece published recently in the Wall Street Journal

Any preschool teacher will tell you that young children learn through play, and some of the best-known preschool programs make play central. One of the most famous approaches began after World War II around the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia and developed into a worldwide movement. The Reg­gio Emilia programs ­encourage young children to ­freely explore a rich environment with the help of attentive adults.

The long-term benefits of early childhood education are increasingly clear, and more states and countries are starting preschool programs. But the people who make decisions about today’s preschool curriculums often have more experience with primary schools. As the early-childhood education researcher Erika Christakis details in her book 'The ­Importance of Being Little', the ­result is more pressure to make preschools like schools for older students, with more school work and less free play.

Is play really that important?

A recent study in the journal 'Developmental Psychology' by Zi Sim and Fei Xu of the University of California, Berkeley, is an elegant example of a new wave of play ­research. The researchers showed a group of 32 children, aged 2 and 3, three different machines and blocks of varying shapes and colours. The researchers showed the children that putting some blocks, but not others, on the machines would make them play music.

For half the children, the ­machines worked on a colour rule — red blocks made the red ­machine go, for instance, no matter what shape they were. For the other children, the devices worked on a shape rule, so triangular blocks, say, made the triangle-shaped machine go.

Both sets of children then ­encountered a new machine, ­orange and L-shaped, and a new set of blocks. The toddlers trained with the colour rule correctly used the orange block, while those trained with the shape rule chose the L-shaped block.

Next the experimenter showed a different set of 32 toddlers the blocks and the machines and demonstrated that one block made one machine play music, without any instruction about the colour or shape rules. Then she said: “Oh no! I just remembered that I have some work to do. While I’m doing my work, you can play with some of my toys!”

The experimenter moved to a table where she pretended to be absorbed by work. Five minutes later she came back. As you might expect, the toddlers had spent the time getting into things — trying different blocks on the machines and seeing what happened. Then the experimenter gave the children the test with the orange L-shaped machine. Had they taught themselves the rules? Yes, the ­toddlers had learned the abstract colour or shape rules equally well just by playing on their own.

It’s difficult to study something as unpredictable as play. Telling children in a lab to play seems to turn play into work. But clever studies like the one in Developmental Psychology are starting to show scientifically that children really do learn through play.

The inspirational sayings about play you find on the internet — “play is the work of childhood” or “play is the best form of research”, for example — aren’t just truisms. They may actually be truths.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal

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