When we start our enrollment for the next school year, I always find it exciting to meet new parents in our community who want to jump in and become a part of our program. But, especially with first-time parents, there are times when I sense their hesitation when we talk about play-based education. I can tell they are unsure whether spending time playing in preschool is going to help their children prepare for kindergarten.
I recently attended a professional development workshop about play, which I hoped would reinforce my ability to talk with new parents. I was expecting a lecture, but instead I walked into a room with a big open floor space and giant bins full of loose parts. Attendees were directed to pick up some stuff and start playing. Eye roll. I spend my days playing with kids, I thought. I don't need to do this on a Saturday morning, too.
But, I did what I was told and grabbed one bag that contained random decks of cards and another full of corks, and I sat down on the floor and started to build. First, I found that some corks were more stable than others, so I had to look for particular shapes and sizes that "worked". Once I had a stable cork foundation (for whatever unknown was coming next) I started to arrange the cards on top to make a layered structure. Then some cards became ramps. Then I added more corks and cards to make boardwalk-like pathway. The shape of the cards and the pictures on the backs created patterns that dictated where they could be placed. The structure continued to grow up and out, increasing in complexity.
Before I knew it, 30 minutes had passed and we had to stop playing and reflect on what we had learned.
I realized that this short exercise wasn't at all about me playing, but was exactly about what children are thinking about and learning during solo play. I thought about size, shape, height, balance, stability, pattern, structure, addition, subtraction, problem solving, and a long list of other things in that amazingly relaxing, uninterrupted 30 minutes. I left more convinced than ever that unstructured, imaginative play is the heart of learning, and that it is my job to ensure that time and space for play is protected and nurtured. I was also reminded that play is good for adults, too.