The Significance of Play, Discovery, and Sense-Making for Early Education

Although play is often seen as something fun for young children to do, it is actually a very critical skill in early development. GSE assistant professor Amy Lewis says, “play is the ‘work’ of early learners.  It is how they make sense of their environment and negotiate new situations be they cognitive, social, academic, or emotional. Play offers opportunities to work through concepts not first clearly understood as it allows room for trial and error, experimentation, creativity, and exploration.  These processes are crucial to young learners’ development. We should not mistake play, however, to be a young person’s game as it has benefits throughout life. It is purposeful and valuable at all stages of growth and development.” GSE professor Sharon Ryan adds, “We know from years of research that children in the elementary grades and in fact all of school learn best when they have opportunities to explore knowledge, to go deep into ideas rather than learn through direct instruction. Children need opportunities to answer real questions, to apply what they are learning, and they need opportunities to work with each other and explain their reasoning.”

The current state of early education in the United States is vastly different depending on where the education is taking place. Amy Hornbeck, a research project manager for GSE’s National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), explains, “the state of early education in the United States varies greatly depending on where one lives and what ages are considered. When it comes to preschool, NIEER’s 2017 State of Preschool Yearbook reports that although enrollment in state-funded preschool program continues to slowly rise, only 33 percent of 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds have access to publicly funded programs. Among states that do fund preschool far too few are considered high quality. There are still seven states that do not invest any state dollars into preschool. In many places it is actually cities that are leading the way, using local funding sources, such as the sweetened beverage tax in Philadelphia, to serve preschool children. Unfortunately many of these programs don’t yet meet key quality benchmarks that indicate the program is likely to deliver optimal benefits.” Ryan says, “there is so much focus in districts on test scores that many teachers in the early childhood space feel like they don’t have the freedom to teach in the ways children learn best, which can be problematic.”

Hornbeck continues, “In the United States there are many inequalities in the types of educational experiences children receive in large part because of the way schools are funded. Local town or city taxes fund the majority of schools in America. High poverty areas tend to have lower home values and are not able to generate the same revenue for their schools that higher income areas are. These fiscal realities lead to situations that can impact the instruction students receive. For example, a school may not have enough funds to hire additional teachers, which leads to larger class sizes that make it difficult to engage in individualized or small group instruction. Schools with fewer resources may also struggle to provide students with access to technology such as computers. Nationally teacher turnover rates are higher in high poverty districts draining schools of the high-quality educators they need. Despite the evidence that play and physical activity support learning, in schools with poor test scores these activities are often reduced or eliminated and replaced with additional test prep. All of these factors work together to create a situation where a student’s address plays an outsize role in determining the type of educational experience they receive.”

Lewis has also done some research on the subject. “For the past few years I have I conducted professional development with NIEER and the NJDOE with teachers from around the state in grades K-3 focused on curriculum integration and project-based learning.  Through this work, I suggest teachers use centers as the means by which to enhance students’ daily interactions with content in student-centered ways.  Sadly, they often struggle to see how they can incorporate free play into students’ daily work.  Teachers, especially in the higher grades, often view centers as teacher directed activities where strict guidelines need to be predetermined. Driven by the need to hold students accountable and to have tangible assessment data, teachers hesitate to let learners “play” with the content.  I encourage them to leverage the content and materials they use to teach it to facilitate the development of games and free choice.  Students should lead in creating these games and be free to make their own rules for how they are played.”

So why is play such an important aspect for development of people of all ages? Hornbeck says, “play comes in many varieties, and at different ages children engage in different types of play. With regard to young children, ‘playtime’ is often thought of as self-motivated, creative and unstructured time. With older children, play often evokes thoughts of games or organized sports. Over the past few decades all of these types of play have been steadily decreasing. In their place ‘screen time’ or more structured activities, such as adult directed enrichment classes, have served as a replacement. In schools we’ve seen a steady decline in access to recess and out of school children are spending less and less time in outdoor activities. This decline in playtime is occurring despite evidence that play encourages the development of competencies such as social skills , language development and executive functioning skills.” Lewis adds, “In the elementary and middle school, students should still be encouraged to explore and investigate what interests and intrigues them freely.  Choice is an effective method for motivating learners at this stage of development. It’s challenging for students to play in school, potentially, because we simply don’t offer them enough opportunities to do it freely.  I fear that we, as educators, may unknowingly create barriers to the development of skillful play if we decide too much for them in school.”

Lewis details the skills she enlists into her teacher education students regarding play: “To ensure my teacher candidates know and understand how to apply these practices to their future classrooms, we often talk about what they experience in class, we they see in their clinical practice, and what is present and lacking in both settings. I ask that they become critical consumers of the instructional practices they experience as learner in their methods courses and as observers in their clinical placements.  The assignments I task them with require them to connect theory to practice by identifying, for example, how play results in positive academic outcomes.  I then require that they incorporate what they learn to be “best practices” supported by what we know and understand about how children learn into their lesson plans.” Ryan adds, “We teach our students in and through practice in our partner districts. This means from day 1 students are learning by working with kids. We also emphasize social justice and equity in our work with students so that they learn how schools often reproduce inequities and what they can do to stop this from happening. Our students are also taught how to teach children by using inquiry and encouraging kids to work together to learn and apply subject matter.”

Hornbeck ends with the following thought: “Many would argue that play is fundamentally important for learning the types of skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century, such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity. There is no reason that lessons cannot include opportunities for playful, motivating and self-directed learning at all grade levels. This, however, requires colleges and universities as well as local schools to invest in providing teachers with the type of training they need to organize their instruction in this way. This includes teaching new educators about the research around play, providing them with opportunities to observe in classrooms of experienced and successful teachers who have incorporated these techniques into their daily pedagogy and providing them with ongoing professional development opportunities or supports such as instructional coaching.”