I watched a child climb up on a stationary mushroom, like she had done many times before. But this time, she didn’t want my help. As she stood there looking at the ground below, her arms stretched out to the sides to help her find her balance, she suddenly leaned forward, looking like she might fall. I took a step toward her and put out my hand. She looked at me with determined eyes as she motioned for me to stand back. She surveyed the area to make sure no one would interrupt her descent. She began to bend her knees, then her arms, and then she clenched both fists. She was ready to take flight. She took one more look at the ground, scooting her feet to the edge of the mushroom, and then…she jumped. Landing with both feet on the ground, the child’s face beamed with pride. She did it! She did it all by herself! No longer will she need help from a teacher to jump off of that mushroom.
A child’s work is in the experiences that happen during play. In those moments, children learn about themselves and the world around them. They discover how things work. They test limits, explore ideas and engage in interactive play. In those moments, when children learn that they are capable of doing something they have never done before, their world shifts to a new, exciting, limitless realm of discovery. They become more confident, assertive, interactive, engaged and verbal. They become active participants in the learning experience, instead of just passive observers.
Play is a conduit to academic learning and physical coordination. For example, using play dough strengthens hand and finger muscles, which eventually leads to writing skills and other manipulative endeavors. Climbing is a complex activity that builds arm, leg and core muscles. It also enhances balance and other gross motor skills, including hand/eye coordination. Then there is dramatic play, which involves a certain level of sophistication. While the scenarios children act out tend to be universal in theme, it is in the details that we get a glimpse into the lives of our children. In those moments of dramatic play we witness the various textures of our children’s lives. We are able to see the relationships our children have with the people around them, hear the voices our children listen to on a daily basis, and better understand the dynamics of the families we serve.
As a teacher (and mother) I understand the power of play. More importantly, I understand that teaching, especially young children, is not always about formal, teacher-directed activities where a topic is introduced with the intention of getting a desired result. In play, learning happens spontaneously and teachers understand that they must recognize and take advantage of those teachable moments in a way that is memorable and that will prompt children to practice a new skill or ability on their own.
By introducing knowledge in a playful, engaging and creative way, children are able to find joy in the learning process… which will hopefully last them a lifetime.