Indoor Party Center - Play Value"
Pretend play as a basis for childhood learning is getting more attention as pressure mounts to teach toddlers to read and have 4-year-olds memorize math tables.
Advocates are working more aggressively for young children to have the chance to play with blocks, dress up like ballerinas and build forts. This philosophy in early learning is not new, but it has become refined as research shows that concepts are understood better through play.
""This is the heart of what we teach to prepare early childhood educators and providers,"" said Janette Wetsel, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Central Oklahoma.
""With No Child Left Behind and pressures teachers are facing in public schools, they are taking play out of the curriculum. We are seeing more and more pencil-and-paper-type of exercises, which are good for older children but not for 4-year-olds.""
Pretend play concepts dominate professional development offerings and serve as a foundation in degree programs. They were the theme at the annual summer conference of the Early Childhood Association of Oklahoma, which is the state affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Wetsel, who was the chairwoman for the conference, said she has received calls from parents of 3-year-olds looking for reading tutors and witnessed preschool classrooms removing play to put in rote and memory activities.
""There is a societal pressure that children should learn things earlier and earlier,"" Wetsel said. ""We want to be accountable for children learning. But we are seeing a push-down of the curriculum.""
It is possible to teach a young child to count to 10, but that child may not understand the difference between two and eight. Literacy skills also involve more than memorizing letters, researchers say.
Pretend play hammers home those concepts by having children experience math, literacy and science through centers placed in a classroom and within exercises facilitated by the teacher. Each item in a play center should have a purpose, Wetsel said.
Having properly educated teachers is paramount in delivering a play-based curriculum and designing an appropriate classroom, researchers say.
For example, teachers can foster effective play through games with directions such as Simon Says, offering joint storybook reading time and encouraging children to speak about themselves. The items should not be theme-based so children can use them in different ways.
""This is not about just sitting there reading a book while children play,"" Wetsel said. ""You are engaging with the child and putting things in the classroom to focus on learning.""
Diane Horm, the director of the Early Childhood Education Center at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, said national accreditation groups are requiring providers to have a curriculum with at least one hour of free play, meaning the children get to choose how to spend that time.
""People of all ages learn with hands-on experience,"" Horm said.
Research shows that the type of play that produces the best results includes three basic areas: imaginary situations, explicit roles and implicit rules.
Horm watched Cassandra Espino, 4, at Tulsa's Educare Center, noting how the girl stayed at the art center for nearly the entire hour.
Cassandra started with stamping then moved into fingerpaints. After about 20 minutes, she started stacking sponges and adding cut-up pieces of paper. She eventually created a line of different stacks and papers representing animals and houses.
""She is learning so many concepts here,"" Horm said. ""She is showing creativity in the artwork and using fine motor skills, but there are math concepts in the stacking and sorting. She has made this into more than just an art project.""
Children who are allowed to finish a project that is started during the play session show gains in their attention spans, according to emerging research.
During Educare's free play time, the classroom of 3- to 5-year-olds never grows loud or unruly. Children tend to stick with one center for at least 15 minutes.
""The idea that if you give kids a big block of time and they won't know what to do just isn't so,"" Horm said. ""There is an underlying value in the objects they are playing with and in learning how to be self-directed. Kids are learning how to schedule their time wisely, and this is a big part of development.""
Educare is a nationally accredited center created with private and public money for Tulsa's low-income families. The children are educated year-round while the parents receive services to help them become self-sufficient.
Developing at Different Speeds
Each center is filled with items allowing for open-ended interpretation and activities. The teachers do not ask the children to replicate a model.
A theme of the sea permeates one classroom, with a sea cave for a dramatic play center where children cook in a plastic waist-high kitchenette and dress up in different costumes.
""We started out with dinosaurs, but the kids loved the tent, so we made it into a sea cave and added to it,"" said a teacher, Allison Trapp. ""They love sleeping under it.""
A 4-year-old pretends to wash her hair while a 3-year-old is feeding and burping a doll just after putting a meal of plastic food on the table for friends.
""She has a baby at home, so she is practicing what she sees,"" Trapp said.
Horm said that playacting helps children understand that objects can represent different things, which eventually leads into letters representing words and numbers translating into objects.
Children are encouraged to work out solutions when they disagree. Teachers will watch as children argue; they intervene only to mediate.
""When there is conflict, we give them words to use,"" Trapp said. ""We work to find a solution both can agree on and not take a side.""
A couple of children play alone while others gather in groups. The ones who start out solo end up in a small group.
Horm noted, ""In the flow of the day, some kids might want some time to be alone, and that's understandable and OK.""
A room for younger children also has open play areas.
A baby batting at a mobile is learning about cause and effect and using motor skills. A 1-year-old boy following a 2-year-old girl pushing a miniature grocery cart is learning by observing.
Children develop at different speeds, and pretend play levels that field, Horm said. When playing, children who are behind can catch up faster and children at or beyond the appropriate level can enhance their skills by teaching others and pushing their knowledge.
""This is good for children with developmental delays, but it is also good for advanced children,"" Horm said. ""It's an opportunity for peer interaction.""
Centers, each with a different focus, are placed throughout a room. The centers provide an outlet for children to socialize and learn problem-solving together. There is no right or wrong in these centers.
Circle Area â€“ Itâ€™s a central place for children to gather for story time or other group learning activities. The circle is often used to start and end the day and serve as a transition spot.
Art Center â€“ Crayons, markers, paints, safety scissors, glue, stamps and other open-ended art materials help children develop fine motor skills and self-expression.
Block or Lego Center â€“ Math skills come into play as children count, build, sort by size and discover physics and geometry. As children build forts, they are using higher functions of math.
Dramatic Play Centerâ€“ A place for acting, dressing up and playing makebelieve. It is usually the most social and lively area of the room. Children work together as they invent situations in role playing.
Library Center â€“ This is usually a quieter area of the room filled with books of varying reader levels. Children practice literary skills, which includes making up stories as they turn the pages or work on identifying letters.
Water and Sand Center â€“ Enhances scientific concepts of cause and effect. Might be in the science area or outdoors.
Science Center â€“ Its live animals can teach responsibility and how things grow. Other tools such as measuring cups, scales and magnifying glasses allow children to examine, experience and problem solve."