Bet you didn’t know that today is Mud Day. Well, I guess everything deserves its day, and mud is the ultimate symbol for children’s play. Stomp. Squish. Get dirty all over. What could be more playful for a young child?
Why celebrate Mud Day, you might ask? Well, despite all you have been hearing to the contrary for the past 10+ years, play is still of primary importance for children’s development and learning. And sadly, many children do not have the opportunity for imaginative play, either at home or in many early and primary education environments.
At home children tend to be overscheduled with structured activities. This had become a necessity for many families to accommodate parents’ work schedules. If kids are not in an after school activity or daycare setting, on a sports team, or in camp during the summer, they may be home on their own or with a sitter. And large portion of children’s home time is spent in passive activities on their screens.
At school, classrooms that include time for play are increasingly rare. Even recess has taken a hit in favor of more academic instruction time. I worry that today’s kids are missing out on important skills that are linked to play: memory, emotional self-regulation, oral language and literacy, perspective-taking, and social competence. In order to succeed in elementary school and beyond, children need these skills, and the best way to learn them is through playing. Strong emotional connections are created and sustained through collaboration among young children and between children and their teachers. These important collaborations support children’s self esteem and social development, and are critical to success throughout their lives.
The introduction of standards into the early childhood setting has posed great challenges for educators who work with young children. Standards provide a basis for the content of early education curriculum, including kindergarten and first grade, and the desired outcomes for children. The classroom practices and teaching strategies used to implement standards, however, are of equal if not greater importance. According to The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, for early learning standards to be effective, they must be implemented through “equally effective curriculum, classroom practices, and teaching strategies that connect with young children’s interests and abilities.”
Philosophers and educators have researched the importance of play in a child’s intellectual, social, emotional and physical development. The theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Malaguzzi (Reggio Emilia), and Montessori value play as a vehicle for learning. During a child’s day there should be structured and unstructured periods of play, allowing children to construct knowledge through various methods at their own rate.
Ten years ago, I participated in drafting a Play Statement endorsed by the Evanston Early Childhood Directors’ Council. I believe our defense of children’s right to learn through play is even more important today, as it has virtually disappeared from lower elementary school grades and even some early childhood programs. Some elements of play-based learning environments outlined in that statement included:
- Materials and time for dramatic, imaginative play.
- Ample and rich language and print.
- Manipulative and table toys.
- Art materials and tools to explore.
- Writing tools and materials.
- Science and math materials to foster experimentation and exploration.
- Sensory play materials, including sand and water.
- A library area.
- Space and equipment for music and movement activities.
- Cooking experiences.
- Computer exploration.
- Blocks of various sizes and materials.
- Outdoor and gross motor play.
- A quiet area for the child who needs to be alone.
Fred Rogers said, “When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit…It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
If our goal is to enable children to think creatively so they succeed in a complex and ever-changing world, play is an important and developmentally appropriate way to get there. So on Mud Day, let’s put childhood play back in the lives of kids.
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