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Understanding the Many Benefits of Play in Early Childhood

This issue takes on more and more importance in this era of the Common Core.

Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Last week, NIEER — the National Institute for Early Education Research — wrapped up a two-week blog forum on the importance of play in early childhood education.

In these blog posts, experts consider the tension that can arise between academics and play. NIEER’s inaugural post explains, “Concerns about whether preschool and kindergarten have become too stressful and regimented are met head on with concerns that they are academically weak and fail to cognitively challenge children.”

The posts are meant to be “valuable resources as parents, teachers, and policymakers strive to ensure play has its place in pre-K.”

In addition to the blogs, NIEER has posted a recommended reading list “to keep the conversation going.”

What the Blogs Say

In a blog post titled “Play, Mathematics, and False Dichotomies,” University of Denver professors Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama write, “Let’s stop the…

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Good Will Out

In the aftermath of the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the subsequent violence, “shelter in place” for Boston and surrounding communities, the manhunt, and ultimately the capture of the second suspect, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief before we get back to work and the latest sense about the newest “normal”. Meanwhile, this tragedy has touched so many of us in very personal ways. Literally, all of us who call Massachusetts our home know someone who was directly affected by the Marathon bombings and its aftermath. We were hurt, angry, sad, and hungry for knowledge and understanding about how this could have happened on Patriots Day.

After the Newtown shootings, as parents said goodbye to their children as they left for school, or brought them to school, or to the bus stop, or a family childcare home they hugged them just a little longer, reminding them how much they loved them. As schools reopen here in Massachusetts tomorrow, every parent will, once again, give their children a little extra hug, tell them they are loved, and silently pray that they will see them again later that day. Invariably, Educators in programs large and small, in Early Intervention, Head Start, Early Education and Care programs, and schools across the Commonwealth and across the nation, recognize their roles as caregivers, keeping children safe while helping the healing process begin anew.

Once again, as caregivers, we must be prepared to reassure parents that their children are safe and to remind children how many good and caring people surround them. Many resources have been posted about how to talk with children about the events in these past four months. However, I have not seen much about how to provide support and care for the caregivers. It is a simple rule of thumb that we must care for the caregivers so that they can care for the rest of us. So let’s take some time to focus on what is truly important, the relationships that bind us together as a caring community and that caring for one another is how we will get through this and other chapters of hardship, fear, and seemingly insurmountable pain. And, let us make sure that those who are in the caring professions have the support necessary so they can continue to care for and educate our children. We should work with staff and develop plans to support them so they may be responsive to parents, help them to reassure their children, and work together to honor the victims and those who put themselves in harm’s, selflessly caring for others.

We must reassure ourselves so that we can reassure our children that there is so much more good in the world than evil, so many more good people than bad. Some will need a great deal of time and support as they go through the long process of healing. Some, especially children, will try to understand what happened to their friend or loved one, or why someone can intentionally do something to hurt so many. Once again, we need to remind them and ourselves, that the good by far outweighs the bad.

On Thursday, in my first class after the Marathon, I asked one of my community college classes how many knew someone who was “truly bad”. In a group of about seventeen students, only two raised their hands. This was after a long discussion about how all of us were personally affected by the events on Patriots Day. The simple math confirmed that among all of us in that one room, we probably knew hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and we could only identify two “truly bad” individuals. I reminded them about a video I share with all of my students. It is a video of a Ted Talk by Shawn Achor

While watching and sharing this twelve-minute video won’t bring back the victims or undo the damage or eliminate every child’s nightmares, or reassure every parent, it can help provide some support for those of us whose job it is to care for and about others. It can help by reminding us that we can choose what we focus on and help others do the same. It is not therapy, but can certainly be helpful in reminding us all that when it seems that all the news is bad, the reality is quite the opposite. If we can see that we share a common humanity, if we can recognize that in order to care for others, we must provide care for the caregivers, Mr. Achor’s talk may help us reconnect with the goodness that truly surrounds us as opposed to the evil that seems to lie in wait as we turn each corner. We must support one another so that we can support our children and communities.

My wife, God bless her, reminds me time and time again, that “Good will out”. I have finally come to accept that truth through seeing the citizens of my adopted hometown rally, unite, and renew the commitment to freedom in the face of fear and evil. We were all truly inspired by the courage of those who ran towards danger to help others. No power can defeat the goodness demonstrated by the runners who came to Boston to run the Marathon, the First Responders, the citizens of the Commonwealth, and those kind and caring people from across the globe who expressed their outrage and kinship with us.

In closing, please take a few minutes to watch the video. If it is helpful to you, share it with someone else, especially someone whose job is to care for others. And remember, “Good will out”.

Staying Current and Significant Milestones Courtesy of Exchange Everyday

Congratulations to the Child Care Information Exchange for thirty-five years of publication. Each morning, I look forward to the latest edition of Exchange Every Day which in a brief format provides unique insights, links to great information and much, much more.

Earlier this week, Exchange noted another significant anniversary, the 100th year anniversary of unit blocks. Quoting, Exchange:

“In 1913, Caroline Pratt was a young
teacher working in Manhattan. Having grown up on a farm, she understood about
hands-on learning. But she realized that city children were deprived of much of
the practical know-how that seemed natural to country kids. This concern,
coupled with inspiration from the Froebel course she’d just completed, led
Pratt to design the Unit Block. Its mathematical proportions and open-ended
nature blend perfectly with Froebel’s philosophy.

“Because there is no ‘correct’ use of blocks, children have no fear of
failure. Imagination guides their play, and each experiment encourages the
next. While observing block play, adults can almost hear a child’s thoughts!
Block play allows children to represent ideas in concrete ways — preparing
their minds for more abstract forms of symbolism, such as written language.
Block play supports knowledge and understanding of the world as children create
miniature environments and experiment with concepts like design, symmetry, and
balance. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright attributed his success to an early love
of block play.”

As I observe student teachers and visit early education and care programs, one sound that I miss is that of falling unit blocks, an indication that children continue to gain all the benefits cited above from playing with unit blocks. Perhaps, my visit haven’t coincided with block play. Perhaps, the focus on academics and higher profile and highly marketed materials have moved to the forefront. Perhaps we should revisit the use of blocks and the many benefits they, and other hands-on materials provide.

A shout out to George Scarlett of Tufts University who was quoted in another Exchange piece about children, relationships, and friendship. It is an honor to know George.

This brief paragraph does such a wonderful job of pinpointing the importance of play, the intentionality of Educators, and the science at the foundation of high-quality programs, which of course includes high-quality staff!

“If you walk into a high-quality early education classroom, what you see is children playing. What you may not realize is that each station in the room, whether the block area or the dramatic play space or the book corner, has been carefully set up to foster children’s learning and healthy development.”

Amy O’Leary, Strategies for Children, March 7, 2013

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On Sequestration

As the deadline for sequestration looms, I cannot help but worry and wonder:

1. On one hand, both from the President’s and Governor Patrick’s perspective, we must do more in promoting and expanding early education and care; on the other hand, sequestration will significantly reduce funding for early education and care. I feel as if I am living in parallel universes.

2. I worry about the many hardworking and dedicated community college students for whom I feel privileged to teach, support, learn from, and mentor.

3. I simply cannot understand the lack of a willingness to compromise and settle our nation’s problems; surely there is a common denominator somewhere, perhaps in the Judeo-Christian foundation that so many agree are the bedrock principles of our republic.

4. I worry that the achievement gap and digital divide will only grow larger.

5. I worry that those least able to suffer a job loss, tuition support, temporary assistance, or medical care, will be harmed the most, including young children in early education and care, as well as, seniors on Medicare and Social Security.

6. I worry about the missed opportunity to share in the abundance that America has to offer all of its citizens and those who want to become citizens.

7. I worry that far too many of us are so concerned about making it through today that we don’t have the energy to think about tomorrow.

8. I worry that I and many others are losing faith in our leaders.

9. I worry for all of our children.

Shout out to Gary Weiss (a former high school classmate) and his book “Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul”.

Play, Symbols, and Reading

As children reach the age of approximately two years old, we notice a great deal of change, in their ability to use words (especially “No”), their ability to move around (often very quickly), their developing sense of humor, and their joy as they explore their environment. We see the “little scientist” that Piaget observed and note the importance of play as young children attempt to master their environment, begin to make rudimentary pictures, develop a greater interest in books and words, and play with toys, especially those that they can manipulate. They also begin to engage in “make believe” play.

As the young child engages in these various types of play, the use of symbols becomes ever more important. We ask them to “tell about your picture”. We encourage them to use words to express themselves. We observe, over time, how the use of symbols (words, art, dress-up, using manipulatives, building with blocks, etc.) gains in importance. Quite simply, the quality of play is based on the use of the symbols used, especially words. As a society, we place great emphasis on words, spoken and written. As children’s experiences with symbols develops, their play moves from solitary play to parallel play, eventually to cooperative play. This is the stage where children will build villages or towns with blocks and other accessories, take on roles of adults, re-enact their experiences through dramatic play and art, and begin to tell stories  (or even jokes) of their own. Eventually, all of this work results in a child’s ability to read and write, using a standard symbol system.

We often think that all of this takes place on its own. However, that notion does not fully recognize the important role that adults play. Some children need to learn how to play. They need an adult to let them know it is “okay to pretend”. That adult models the joy of play, the importance of being silly from time to time, and a love of learning. That adult may need to take on a role to model for children how to “pretend”. That adult encourages the child to explore and use various symbols, including words to achieve a sense of mastery.

So why is all of this important? In my opinion, the more quality playing opportunities provided for children, the more they will use language; the more they use language, the more comfortable they will be with the use of symbols. They will come to understand pictures and words, spoken or written are symbols representing something real. They are delighted to tell stories. As the process of using symbols plays out (no pun intended), children become truly ready to explore the world of printed materials, write their own stories, and read (or pretend to read) books. This lays a foundation for understanding other symbol systems, from math to science to music. Furthermore, research has shown that as children engage in quality pretend (or socio-dramatic play), their use of language increases, and their level of aggressive behavior decreases. I have seen it happen in my own experience. Alas, that is a story for another day.

So, please play, be playful, and if you know a child who does not play, become a role model for that child. Open the world of play and ultimately the world of symbols (storytelling, books, music, art, science, technology, dance, drama, and more) to that child.

Shout out to programs in Massachusetts that received their NAEYC accreditation:

Also check the Council for Professional Recognition: Thank you Valora Washington; CDA is thriving once again.


Language Development, Play, Reading, and Math Part 1

At the end for web As the song goes, “At the end of the storm…”

I was originally going to include Symbol Development as the title, but then I figured that no one would read this. Truth be told, however, that the use of and manipulation of symbols are the foundation of communication, literacy, and other languages, including those of music, math, science, technology, and the arts. Each has a unique structure and vocabulary.

Very young children communicate through their whole bodies. You can see this when infants respond to our opening and closing our hands by opening and closing their mouths. We can hear this when they cry; while the sound makes its way through their vocal chords and mouth, in fact, their whole body is talking (a total organismic response as the earliest use of symbols).

As we talk and sing, rock them, and take care of them, communication takes on greater importance. Babies respond to their environment and to the people in it. Over time, the use of gestures, most vividly seen when babies point to things they want, becomes part of their communication tool kit. They begin to point to things and as they do, we name them. They learn that everything has a name! I think that this is one of the most important concepts in language development. Babies respond to their names and proud parents and grandparents are thrilled when we ask, “Where’s mommy or daddy?” or, in my case, as a grandfather, “Where’s Pop-pop?” and the infant looks our way. We exult and they return the emotion with smiles, babbles of excitement, and more!

Gestures are especially important in language development. Once again, imitation is important. As I visit numerous infant-toddler programs, I have witnessed the use of sign language (gestures) as a method to enhance communication and language development skills. As the adults make gestures, they also use words. Very young children learn through imitation and over time, they begin to use more and more words. Eventually, they try to say the names of certain people and objects. Many a nickname has developed from a very young child’s attempt to say someone’s name!

These experiences provide the foundation for the use of symbols, the ability to create meaning, a representation of a concept or idea, something that stands for something else. As we learn to differentiate among the infant’s different cries, we learn that one cry represents that they are hungry, another that they are wet, another that they need to be comforted. Pointing and gestures are another stage in symbol development as we respond and they learn the names and words that represent those gestures. Words themselves are symbols. These early stages of infancy and toddlerhood provide the foundation for the next stages of using symbols and making meaning of the world: play.

That will be the focus of my next post: play and its importance to the further development of the use of symbols (reading, writing, and other languages).

In closing, I want to give a “shoutout” to the late Florence Rossman who was one of my Proessors at Wheelock College and introduced me to the book “Symbol Formation” by Werner and Kaplan.

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