Why schools — now more than ever — should let young kids learn through play (not worksheets)
Perspective by Valerie Strauss
Nancy Carlsson-Paige is an early-childhood development expert who has been at the forefront of the debate on how best to educate very young students. She is a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., where she taught teachers for more than 30 years and was a founder of the university’s Center for Peaceable Schools. She is also a founding member of a nonprofit organization called Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early-childhood education and advocates for sane policies for young children.
Carlsson-Paige is author of “Taking Back Childhood.” The mother of two artist sons, Matt and Kyle Damon, she is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Legacy Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps for work over several decades on behalf of children and families.
She has written before on this blog about how young children learn through play and how early-childhood education has been twisted over the past few decades by policies that focused on raising standardized test scores and pushed academic work into preschool.
Here is her new piece about reimagining early-childhood education, followed by links to some of her earlier essays on this blog.
By Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Two children, ages 4 and 6, are coping with the covid-19 pandemic in their playroom. They are zapping bad germs away with outstretched arms and hissing sounds and using magic wands to bring dead people back to life. These two kids are using the most important natural resource children have for coping with their sometimes scary and confusing world: play.
Decades of research and theory tell us that play is the primary way that young children make sense of their world. Play is how children maintain emotional balance; it’s how they cope. Play is such a driving force in children’s lives that it is sometimes called the engine of their development. No one teaches children how to play, yet they all know how to do it.
Hardly a frivolous activity, play is not only the vehicle children use to cope, it’s also how they learn — how they build concepts, invent ideas and learn to think for themselves.
There are many accounts of children playing out challenges and traumas they have faced in different life experiences. Children today who are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic need lots of imaginative play opportunities to help them make sense of the radical changes that have affected so many aspects of their lives.
And once kids do return to in-person school, they are going to need a lot of time to play to process all the changes they’ve been through. This is what will help them regain a sense of security for going forward.
Ever since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, we’ve seen play disappearing from classrooms for young kids, replaced by an overemphasis on academic standards and testing. This approach is wrongheaded and goes against everything early-childhood professionals know about what children need and how they learn in the early years.
Research on kindergarten programs has shown that the greatest of these changes occurred in programs serving children of color from low-income communities. Their classrooms have been the ones that most overemphasized academic skills, worksheets and drills, and pushed out opportunities for play.
But the play disparity in school begins well before kindergarten. Because we don’t provide high-quality preschool to all children in the nation, parents are on their own to try to find prekindergarten programs for their kids.
Children from families with means typically attend private preschools, the vast majority of which offer play-based, experiential, activity-centered learning — the best that money can buy. But children who attend preschool programs receiving public funds get a much different kind of education. Their programs require that they learn discrete academic skills delivered through direct instruction and measured by tests.
For early-childhood educators who understand the importance and necessity of play in the early years, these disparities in both preschool and kindergarten programs disadvantage children of color and begin a racial play/learning gap that starts with the first days of preschool.
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted young children from low-income Black and Latino communities. They have paid the biggest price in terms of family illness, loss of loved ones, uncertainty and disruption. Children who experience difficulty and trauma in their lives need play as a critically important vehicle for adapting to stress.
A recent survey found that 60 percent of licensed child-care providers have closed and many of those that have remained open have reduced spaces or hours. To prevent the decimation of the child-care industry, there will need to be a big influx of money to shore up programs and make them safe to reopen, when that becomes possible.
But this is a time to commit even more than increased resources to programs for young children. It’s a time to reimagine how to best care for and educate children equitably and in ways compatible with their developmental needs.
It’s our moment to take stock of what schools have been doing to young children for the last 20 years and ask if we are helping or harming them. It’s our moment to reimagine what optimal education for every young child in the nation could look like.
We need universal, high-quality pre-K for every child in the country. High quality means an experiential, play-based program with skilled teachers who know child development.
We need to face and correct the inequalities in early education that have unfairly advantaged the haves. This is the moment when policymakers need to listen to the voices of early-childhood educators who have been crying out for years about the developmentally inappropriate standards being pushed on young kids.
When we send young children back to school buildings, there may have to be limitations on some kinds of play, but we must be prepared to provide more holistic classrooms that meet the needs of all children.
We can’t go back to an approach to education that has drifted so far away from what we know is best for young children, one that became completely unmoored from the knowledge we have about how they learn, one that has caused a racial play/learning gap that starts on the first day of preschool.