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Play’s the thing when it comes to early learning

Submitted by on Tuesday, 17 February 2009 No Comment

You’re a conscientious objector to flash cards and Brainy Baby videos, but a tiny portion of your brain fears you’ve doomed you kid to life in a dunce cap.

You titter to yourself when parents complain that their toddlers aren’t taught keyboarding and giggle when a child is taken out of one preschool in favor of another with “better academic standards,” though you quietly worry that “I had a bad mother” will one day be an excuse in an insanity plea.

Then up pops a statement from a scholar that’s like a band of heavenly angles singing.

Parents and educators who favor classroom-style learning over unstructured playtime in preschool and kindergarten may actually be stunting a child’s development, University of Illinois Professor Anne Haas Dyson believes.

Yes! Validation!

Not that I particularly needed validation – I’m stubborn that way. But the paranoid corner of my mind was comforted to know that I’m not that far off track after all.

Beyond making sure he knew the basics – colors, shapes, countings, some letter recognition, crayon and pencil grasp – I basically didn’t give a flip about “kindergarten preparation” for Big Guy.

Even at that, most of what he learned was incidental. I never drilled him on colors, but let it come from a part of natural conversation. Natural for him at least. There is nothing natural about an adult saying, “yes, I will hand you the blue ball” or “please stop coloring your brother with that green chalk.” You do that you have to, though.

His preschool attended did use Zoophonics and go through the “letter of the week” routine, but I wasn’t too militant about pushing it on him. We’d practice writing a bit, but fine motor skills were never a strong point and he quickly grew frustrated with trying to do what his hand wasn’t ready for yet. So we were more likely to learn letters by looking for them on street signs and storefronts.

By and large, we learned by doing. Big  Guy quickly figured out while painting that combining all colors is going to lead to gray or black every time. So he quit doing that and instead started mixing yellow and red to make orange or blue and yellow to come up with green – one of my favorite Evil Mommy tricks is buying primary colors only, though I need to splurge on a bottle of white next time. The kid who says he hates pink always wants pink paint for some reason.

Still, bouts of Mommy Guilt would well up once in a while. “You’re screwing over your child,” the beast would lecture.

Turns out I wasn’t.

Dyson, who specializes in curriculum and instruction and is about to publish a book on early learning, says play is the “fundamental avenue” on the path toward learning, and attempts by parents and educators to create gifted children by bombarding them with information is well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive.

The idea that play can be eliminated from classrooms – and much of it has been in the post-apocalyptic days of No Child Left Behind – works against children because it deprives them of the time they need to develop imagination and curiosity, Dyson adds.

“I’m certainly not opposed to literacy in the early grades,” Dyson says, “but the idea that we can eliminate play from the curriculum doesn’t make sense. Kids don’t respond well to sitting still in their desks and listening at that age. They need stimulation.”

When too much time is spent memorizing, though, it’s at the cost of important skills such as problem-solving and social navigation.

“All tests tell us is how many letters and how many sounds children know,” she said. “I think there should be this grand societal conversation about what’s intellectually motivating and exciting for our children.”

There go her opportunities to work as a federal education consultant.  The thing is, though, those who are in the position to hire consultants need to hear her message. Not that they don’t already know this. They just ignore it because we have to have “standards.”

According to Dyson, though, there’s something more important than test-driven “standards.”

“We have to intellectually engage kids,” she said. “We have to give them a sense of their own agency, their own capacity, and an ability to ask questions and solve problems. So we have to give them more open-ended activities that allow them the space they need to make sense of things.”

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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