The battle between play and eduction

So often it seems like there is a battle going on between play and education.  Many people seem to feel that education is something that must be done sitting in rows at desks, and that worksheets are the most sure way to teach and to learn.  Yet play is so important for children, and many parents and schools overlook play as unimportant.  The following quote describes a study that was done to see how play impacts learning.  Specifically, they tested to see if there was a correlation between literacy and time spent in sociodramatic play.  The results emphasize the tremendous value of play and show the ways that play can be a tool for education rather than fighting against it.


“…Bodrova and Leong’s Tools of the Mind preschool and kindergarten classrooms, based on Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development and the work of his student, Elkonin, use sociodramatic play to foster literacy.  These classrooms contain dramatic play areas where children spend a substantial amount of time daily, and dramatic play permeates many classroom activities.  Teachers support children’s play by helping them create imaginary situations, providing props and expanding possible play roles.  Children, with the teacher’s assistance, develop written play plans, including the theme, the roles, and the rules that will govern the play.  Studies of the Tools of the Mind curriculum support its effectiveness (Bodrova & Leong, 2001; Bodrova, Leong, Norford, & Paynter, 2003).  In one study, children who spent 50 to 60 minutes of a 2½-hour program engaging in supported sociodramatic play scored higher on literacy skills than did children in control classrooms (Bodrova & Leong, 2001).  Thus, play, rather than detracting from academic learning, actually supported it.  More recent research, published in Science, showed positive effects of the curriculum on executive functioning, particularly cognitive control (Diamong, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro, 2007).  In this study, 147 5-year-olds in a low-income, urban U.S. school district were randomly assigned to classrooms using either Tools of the Mind curriculum or another literacy curriculum.  Children were evaluated on two measures of executive functioning:  (a) ability to hold abstract rules in mind; and (b) ability to focus attention, ignore distractions, and switch focus of attention.  For the first measure, most children in the Tools of the Mind group completed the task successfully, compared to fewer than one-third of the children in the comparison group.  Children in the Tools of the Mind group also outperformed comparison children on their ability to switch focus of attention” (Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2009, p. 9).


Play challenge personal update

Some more ways that I am experimenting with play:  

  • Wearing a scarf to visit families so that I can play peekaboo with the babies and toddlers  
  • Light saber battles with wrapping paper tubes
  • Making a race car out of a cardboard box with the nephews
  • Extra walks and time on the elliptical
  • Finished Stuart Brown's book Play, and now I'm starting to read The Gift of Play: Why Adult Women Stop Playing And How To Start Again. by Brannen, Barbara
  • I'm exploring the things that I've enjoyed doing in the past. I'm learning that I enjoy physical play, and generally I enjoy getting outdoors.  I miss ice skating on a pond in the wintertime. I miss walks through the creeks of western New York. I enjoy walking on local trails, such as the Los Gatos Creek Trail.  I'm planning some dates with my hubby to go dancing.  
  • Getting face-to-face with the babies and toddlers that I work with, observing them and enjoying their sweet smiles.
  • I enjoy playing with the props that I use to emphasize a point when I am teaching or speaking. For example, I love to bring funny glasses to use to help us to look through someone else's point of view. I love to bring brain stress balls to teach about calming down first before trying to problem-solve. I love to use bubbles to teach babies (and adults) to calm and control their breath.  

The role of play in development

Play builds strong bodies and strong minds.  Because play allows children to practice situations before they get to them, play relieves stress and provides an opportunity for children to work out their fears.  Through careful observation and allowing the child to direct their own play, adults are given an opportunity to understand children better.  When I became a parent, I remember being surprised to find that there was a purpose for toys that went beyond just having fun!  It was very interesting for me to find out how much kids learn from toys, even from a very young age.  They can learn cause and effect, reaching, grasping, a desire for mobility when they see something out of reach that they want - just to name a few.

Play begins at infancy through simple, solitary observation of the world.  As the child’s cognitive and motor skills improve, he is able to interact more and more with both the objects and the people in his environment.  

In the next stage of play, children begin playing independently.  As Piaget says, they become “little scientists” and explore the world by learning cause and effect relationships.  For example, they might drop a plate over and over again to see what happens - both the sound and movement that the plate makes as it hits the floor and also the caregiver’s reaction.  

As children’s cognitive, social, and language skills improve, children first start to notice what other children are doing, and then they move into what is called “parallel play.”  This means that the children are playing independently but next to each other.  In this stage, they also start noticing other children (and adults) around them, observing them, and imitating their behavior.

Finally, children arrive at a stage where their play becomes more interactive.  As their cognitive skills improve, children learn mental representation, which allows them to begin to pretend.  First they participate in associative play by borrowing, lending, sharing, etc.  They can also start to play cooperative or organized play such as games and shared goals (Cook et al., 2008).

Block Play

Children generally learn to play with blocks in a sequence.  

Check out this PDF from the Montana State Library about the stages of block play.  

This YouTube video talks about all of the different things that kids learn through block play and presents the idea of doing a block party.  

At 17 months, this little girl is stacking and making block towers.  

This video highlights all the things that this young child is learning when playing with blocks.  

I also loved this quote on block play: "Unlike toys that have limited use or can be play with in only one way, open-ended toys and play-things can be used in diverse ways and with different levels of proficiency. Blocks, for example, can be used to stack, load in a wagon, build a tower, clap to music, or symbolically represent a person, vehicle, animal, or railroad track. Blocks are enjoyed differently at different ages as play behaviors and capabilities change over time. Blocks have an enduring quality essential to play that supports cognitive and language development at all ages. Think about it: Architects and engineers use blocks to create models of their proposed structures. By contrast, a wind-up mechanical or electronic toy is of little value if all one can do with it is watch it "perform," or if its use requires adult assistance" (Puckett & Black et al., 2009, p. 302).