In this day and age, we hear a lot of talk about what our children are learning and how they are learning it. There seems to be a lot of focus on keeping our children competitive with others and making sure our own kids have a "leg-up" on the neighbor's child. We don't simply want our children to be learning at their own age level, we want them to be learning above it.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has resulted in an educational system where high test scores are the most important thing (regardless of how the children achieve them) and an atmosphere focused on performance is paramount. But whatever happened to children being children?
I remember coming home from school in my elementary years, having a quick snack, and going outside to play with my friends until dinner time. Now it seems there is no time for any of that because the homework loads are three times what they were starting as young as kindergarten! Now I know we can't really change the system. At this point, the elementary schools have the curriculum they have based on what the governments (local and national) deem appropriate for our nation's youth. But what about our youngest learners? I believe very strongly that there is always time ahead for the sitting-at-your-desk-doing-workbooks learning. The preschool years should be for one thing and one thing only: PLAY.
Play is the foundation of all the developmental skills children need to learn. When your child is in an environment where there is appropriate play, they are continuously learning new things. The majority of research out there suggest that children who attend preschools with a play-based curriculum are better of in the long run due to the tremendous value of what they are learning by being a part of that kind of environment. According to child researcher, Sara Smilansky, there are four distinguishable types of play: functional, constructive, dramatic, and games with rules. Each one of these types of play allow children to learn and strengthen different skills in different ways.
Functional play is a form of play where children use their sense and muscles to experiment with materials and learn how things go together. This is done with such activities as art and sensory. Through the repetition of actions and talking to and themselves about what they are doing, children are learning pre-math skills, pre-science skills, as well as developing their own creativity.
Constructive play is also a hands-on play method, but this one involves the different uses of play materials. They start putting things together based on the child's individual plan. Block play is an example of this. Children are experimenting with physics and math as they use their own creativity to create a tower, house, or road.
Dramatic play can be a part of both functional and constructive play as it involves children experimenting with what they see around them and acting out the roles and experiences they witness. This kind of play is person-oriented as apart from material-oriented, so it takes place on an almost constant basis in any classroom.
Finally, games with rules require children to control their behavior, both mentally and physically. They have to learn to listen and follow directions as well as function as part of a larger group. This can be anything from table board games to favorite toddler games like "The Hockey Pokey."
All-in-all play enhances children's creativity, problem solving, and social skills. In life, the most important things we can learn are how to get along with others, play fair, and be a productive member of a group. I believe it is time that we stop focusing so much on our children being super-advanced fact machines, and just let them be who they are. The first five years go by so fast and we don't get a chance to re-learn what we should have learned then, so please, let your children be children and rest comfortably knowing that they are learning at all times...especially when they are playing.