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The Kids Are “Just Playing”

by Early Math Counts

At our NAEYC presentation a couple of weeks ago in Dallas, an attendee raised her hand and asked, “What do I do when a parent worries that her child is ‘just playing’?”  It didn’t quite come out of left field, as we were discussing math opportunities in the context of play, but I could tell that this was an issue that was pressing for her.  She may have even come to our session to ask that question. She was concerned about the disconnect between what practitioners know to be good for children and unrealistic expectations that parents demand of programs.

I could tell that many of the other attendees were concerned about the same issue. Rather than answering in a coherent and reasonable way, I began babbling and rambling like a complete goofball.  I don’t know what came over me, since I have been answering this question for 20 years, but for some reason, in the context of talking about math, I stumbled.

We come out of our teacher education programs with a clear philosophy of play as the foundation of learning for young children.  We ALL know this.  We go out into the work force and begin the long tug-of-war between staying true to a philosophy of play and the never-ending pressure to turn our preschool classrooms into 1st grades.  Sometimes, the pressure comes from the parents, sometimes from the program director.  It can also come from the folks with the money.  You have to be able to combat all of this with a clearly articulated philosophy that simply says,

“Children are never “just playing.”

So, how do you handle this question at your program? How do you defend your play-based program while also articulating a clear understanding of play as the vehicle for learning?

Let us know.

3 Replies to “The Kids Are “Just Playing””

  1. Jen:

    This week students will be checking in to respond – one place I like to start is in our child development lab- encouraging childcare practitioners to \”play\” with the material as they develop lesson plans and curriculum webs.

    Sometimes students are quite uncomfortable with the idea of \”playing\” with the materials to see what happens or to try a variation on a suggested activity – I often wonder in those cases what happens in classrooms
    Are children \”told\” what to to at each step when they are engaged in activity in class or as caregivers to we give our children time to play/explore the materials ? Do we take the time to ask questions about what the child is doing? Or do we direct/control every activity/lesson to find \”proof\” to parents administrators etc that \”Work\” is being done in preschool and kindergarten ?

    One of the students in Saturday class was able to attend the Dallas session and share what she learned with the class.
    We were fascinated to hear that NAEYC now encourages the SMART program
    Science Math Art and Technology – perhaps this initiative will be yet another way for givers of care for young children see the value in what we call \”play\”

    1. I think the idea that teachers try and teach children how to play is absurd. I completely understand that some children benefit from modeling and even simple explanations for what some materials might be used for, but the notion that teachers will talk through each step of an activity is counterintuitive to me.
      You said it best when you asked about waiting and allowing the children to explore the materials themselves. If the adults watch the children engage with the materials in a supportive and well-designed environment, the children will teach them about what they know, what they are thinking about, and what they need from the adults.

  2. I agree, there must be a clear statement that supports children play as \”work\”. In most cases children view playtime when they are free to \”run\”, \”jump\” and do frivolous things that places them in a trance of pure bliss and laughter. Look at a child\’s face as he/she play a game of tag. However, when a child is actively engaged in sorting, recalling, and using critical thinking skills in a developmentally appropriate environment. Us practitioners define this as play but this is \”children working\”.

    I have found that parent relates best when I tell them that as we think of children playing we must realize that this is work for them.

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