As anyone who has worked in early childhood education or has small children knows, our precious little ones aren't always the best at following direction. This is because many children do not have the ability to process information in a coherent way or to avoid distraction and focus on a given task.
What is interesting is that these emotional and cognitive abilities are strong indicators of academic success later on and, contrary to popular belief, can be positively influenced early in a child's development. How? Through playtime!
Yes, playtime is not just a time for our kids to let out their energy. At Miracle Moments, we have created a space for our students to play together in our sandbox, with toy cars, tricycles, Frisbees and much more. But did you know that this free play is just as important as the work our students do in the classroom? Parents and other visitors who observe our students "playing" may be skeptical of our approach, not understanding or appreciating the value of what our children are learning through playtime. But studies show that children learn best in environments that allow them to discover, explore and play.
But what do we mean when we speak of play in terms of early childhood education? Catherine Garvey, in her book Play, defines it as "an activity which: 1) is positively valued by the player; 2) is self-motivated; 3) is freely chosen; 4) is engaging; and 5) which 'has certain systematic relations to what is not play'" (1977). Garvey goes on to explain that such activities strengthen cognitive development because it forces children to interact with each other on a social level, to think about what they are going to do, and to use language to communicate with one another. The combination of these elements works to strengthen cognitive development in each child, which translates into increased performance in the classroom.
I appreciate every time I have the opportunity to be in our courtyard and watch my students play with each other–learning from each other in unrestrained creative expression–because I can see that they are not only learning their ABCs and 123s; they are learning how to respond to instruction, to communicate with one another, to show that they care for one another, to be respectful and to be the beautiful people God created them to be.
Garvey, C. (1977). Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.