Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Point of Play

I spend a lot of time on online early childhood sites, reading blogs, commenting and discussing topics on Facebook groups, and scrolling through curriculum ideas on Pinterest. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a huge growing interest in things having to do with “Reggio Inspired” “Loose Parts” and “Nature Play”, which is really exciting to me as a teacher who has spent years encouraging children to come up with their own ideas, use materials the way they want and take the lead in deciding what they want to do and how they’re going to do it. At the heart of this is my core belief that children learn through play: through activities that focus on children’s process and that allow children to have control over the planning, decision making, and interactions during these activities.

But somehow, adults keep missing this.

It’s hard to be a “teacher”. I sometimes feel that title is like a heavy backpack of expectations each of us carries, never letting us forget that our “real job” is to be teaching children something. No matter how many times we say that “children learn through play” or “process is more important than product”, there’s that pesky “teacher” baggage weighing down and whispering in our ears that what we should really be doing is making sure the kids know their numbers and ABCs.

I see this over and over again in the conversations about classroom materials. The concept of using “loose parts” is about providing open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways, encouraging creativity, discovery, and exploration. There’s also attention to design elements, so many of these materials are truly beautiful, and their color, shape, and texture add to the overall environment of classroom space. But I’ve noticed more and more, adults getting caught up in simply having the materials to use for their own “teacher” purposes and less on letting children use them the way the children want to.

Every experience doesn’t need to involve an adult teaching an academic skill. Every time a child sits down with a pile of colored beads or blocks, they shouldn’t be expected to sort them or create patterns. Every time a child lines up a row of rocks, they shouldn’t be asked to count them. Teachers shouldn’t be focused on what the adults can make out of bottlecaps and rocks, they should be focused on creating an environment where the children will figure out what to do with them. Instead of spending time writing letters and numbers on tree circles and seashells, teachers should be embracing these materials for what they are – opportunities for children to be creative and expressive and the leaders of their own play. That’s what the materials are for – to play with. Not to find one more surface to write numbers and letters on, or to “teach” a concept or skill, but to create a space and opportunity for children to play. Play itself is the point of play.