What do Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mr. Rogers and Plato have in common? They all recognized the importance of play. Einstein called it “the highest form of research.” And acclaimed physician Maria Montessori declared, “Play is the work of the child.” That belief built the early-educational philosophy most revered today.
Play is important work, and it’s the way that children learn best.
Michelle Gold, director of the Goldsmith Early Childhood Education Center at Chizuk Amuno, is especially interested in how play has come full circle. “At one time, everyone was so worried about being structured—‘When is he going to be ready to read?’—but now the important thing is how they play and what they learn from play,” Gold says. Hers is a school of centers: one for dramatic play, one for listening, one for reading.
While children play, whether it’s outside in mud puddles or inside with blocks or toy kitchens, they’re learning the important lessons of social, problem-solving and decision-making skills; exploration and questioning; individual and group play; and the art of compromise. Kids at Goldsmith, for instance, sign up for a center and learn to take turns if that one is full.
At Irvine Nature Center’s Nature Preschool, play involves “the stinky and the messy and the dirty.” Beth Lacy Gill, director of marketing, says her kids “spend every day in the rain, snow, mud—all the things you remember enjoying.” And while they’re catching a whiff of stinky skunk cabbage, they’re learning how the early pollinators are lured out of hibernation. While they’re arranging sticks, they’re learning how letters are made. They play at recycling and composting and in no time have “a leg up on science classes and will be future environmental stewards,” she adds.
At St. Paul’s Plus Preschool, Head of School Penny Evins says play starts with “loving, talented and well-educated teachers,” with creativity, curiosity and character education at the core. And students arrive at those concepts through play. Even when they’re pretending to be on an airplane flying to another country, they’re using conjecture and hypothesis to determine how they’ll pack for the trip. They eat airline snacks from their destination country and listen to music popular there. Kids draw and chart and sing. And when they’re finished, they’ve learned math, science, social studies, language and nutrition—and all they’ve done is have fun.
At Irvine, Gill says, while kids play in the autumn leaves, they’re learning early math concepts—greater than, less than.
“Making everything beautiful is part of our curriculum,” Evins adds. “Everything should be a sense of wonder and beauty.”
Michelle Gold believes that “the key to a successful preschool experience is happy children. You have to be about the kids.” And about play.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” said George Bernard Shaw. “We grow old because we stop playing.” Play on!