playtime, recess, early childhood playtime
AP Photo/The Garden City Telegram, Matthew Huddleston
Zach McVey, 6, and Kenzie Britton, 4, sing the "No Laugh Race" at the Musical Seuss on the Loose
class in Garden City, Kan., Jan. 24, 2004.

What Playtime Means to Educators

August 19, 2010 06:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Proponents of some early childhood programs believe structured play can help children learn “self-regulation,” a skill that may increase future academic success. Some critics, however, consider it destructive to police children’s playtime.

Debating the Merits of Play in Intellectual Development

After visiting a kindergarten classroom in Red Bank, N.J., that uses a program called Tools for the Mind, New York Times editor Paul Tough wrote, “If you want to succeed in school and in life [according to the program’s founders] … spend hour after hour dressing up … cooking make-believe hamburgers and pouring nonexistent tea, doing the hard, serious work of playing pretend.”

Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, two Colorado-based child development researchers, created the Tools for the Mind program for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students using the educational philosophy of Russian psychologist Les Vygotsky, who died in 1934.

Providing young learners with the right amount of assistance is central to Vygotsky’s theory. This means meeting them in a place where they feel challenged but not helpless, called the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). Vygotsky believed that social interaction, either with peers or adults, was critical for learning, according to a Web site for the documentary “Lev Vygotsky: One man’s legacy through his life and practice.”

Leong and Bodrova expanded upon Vygotsky’s theories and adopted “mature dramatic play”—what Tough describes as “complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children”—as the crux of their program. They believe “structured play” guided by adults can help any child learn self-regulation, and could eliminate the need for ADHD medications such as Ritalin.

More importantly, research has shown that attaining self-regulation skills early could lead to better performance on math and reading tests later. Such skills are more predictive of academic achievement than even student IQ, according to Tough. Unfortunately, he adds, “[T]hose skills appear to be in short supply among young American children.”

The causes of the shortcomings and the possible solutions have been debated for decades. Most teachers and parents fall into what Tough calls the “preacademic camp,” which favors teaching reading and math skills straightaway, or a second camp focused on exploration through a “play-based approach.” Leong and Bodrova believe their program rests somewhere in the middle.

Still, programs like theirs have garnered plenty of criticism. “When schools hire coaches to teach children how to play, it shows just how much we’ve destroyed childhood,” Derrick Z. Jackson wrote for The Boston Globe in 2009. His editorial critiqued the national nonprofit Playworks, saying it “dumbs down creativity.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics advocates “self directed play,” as does Boston psychologist Peter Gray, who says children must learn to “assert themselves” and be “free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game.”

Opinion & Analysis: Play-based learning

Elizabeth Blackwell, a writer for the parenting blog Babble, said she started to worry about her daughter’s preschool education when she compared other children’s alphabet practice sheets to the glittery artwork her daughter brought home. Her panic subsided after she uncovered research about age-appropriate learning.

“Around the time I was worrying about Clara’s inability to write lowercase letters, she came home with a story that she had dictated to one of her teachers,” Blackwell wrote. Initially she thought the story was only meant as an exercise in creativity. But she came to realize that it represented an important phase in the reading process.
“Think of what it means from a child’s viewpoint: An adult is paying attention, writing down what I say … That’s a powerful incentive for learning,” Blackwell quoted Jerlean Daniel, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, as saying.

Related Topic: The language of learning: "private speech"

In addition to social interaction, Vygotsky also researched the “self-directed speech” children engage in as they learn. Developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the author of “A Thousand Days of Wonder: A Scientist’s Chronicle of His Daughter’s Developing Mind,” and a writer for the Psychology Today blog, witnessed the phenomenon, also known as “private speech,” while his daughter completed a puzzle:

“And through it all she is talking: naming pieces, stating their destinations, asking questions and then answering them on her own.”

Fernyhough explains that private speech represents an important phase. Eventually, he notes, “[l]anguage will still be mediating her thinking, but it will be a new kind of language, the sort that only she will hear.”

Background: What is the zone of proximal development?

Vygotsky developed the idea that cognitive development happens within “the zone of proximal development.” A YouTube demonstration of a boy learning to count illustrates how this learning space—“[t]he area between the level of independent performance and the level of the assisted performance”—functions.

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