This week, I was a kindergarten teacher, which is not my usual role. As media specialist, I usually see kindergarten students in short half hour to forty-five minute blocks of time to teach them either something about literature and literacy or how to operate a computer. The opportunity to plan and teach the half day Jumpstart program for a week was a welcome change. It was a chance to get out my magnets and rocks and play dough and paints. Did I mention that because it was a sort of soft start to prepare them for the actual school year, I didn’t even have to figure out if they could read or count, although, informally, I did. Observing them as they colored and painted and played in the housekeeping center and on the playground, I saw all sorts of marvelous evidence about how their brains, bodies and vocabularies were growing simply by being given new opportunities for play. It made me long for the former days when kindergarteners were given that freedom all year long. Something is lost when young children are forced to do “academics” before they are ready. Play is really the way children learn. In fact, I think all humans learn best through play. Just look at the Pokemon Go craze. No matter how you feel about the actual game, there is no denying that players learn about things in their community that they never knew existed.
I am not the only one to notice this. Lev Vygotsky said,”In play it is as though [the child] were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.” (From The Power of Play by Dr. Rachel E. White) Teachers and anyone who actually interacts with children understand that play is where the intellect can stretch without risk. There is really no wrong way to pretend to be a dragon, even if your playmate takes exception to your style. Language play often becomes what we call poetry. Play within the natural world takes on the cast of a science experiment.Children, and really all of us, need a chance to play and try things with a lower risk factor. The person who cannot try and fail or even try and then try again a different way, never really has the opportunity to learn. I am saddened that so many of the “powers that be” do not understand this simple truth.