Thursday, November 28, 2013

Play Matters

As one who teaches young children, typically about six years old, I've thought a lot lately about them and formal schooling. I've wondered if five is too young to move into what is, at least these days, much more structured and much less play based than what seems appropriate. As a result, I looked briefly into how old students are when they start school in various countries. I didn't find anything that seemed revolutionary but the question kept nagging at me.
Then, back in late September I came across this piece from the University of Cambridge (U.K.).(Yes, tabs stay open in my browser for a long time. I'm glad to finally be getting to this one.)
The piece was written by an education professor at Cambridge, David Whitebread, one of many speaking up about the age for starting school in the U.K. According to Whitebread, students begin formal schooling at four. He argues that this is too young and that children should still be learning through play at that age. He cites research showing the importance of play in the early years based on neuroscience and on long-term looks at students who began school at different ages. He also suggests that in many educationally high-achieving countries, students start school at the age of seven.
I went in predisposed to agree with his argument, so the fact that I do so is unsurprising. I believe we are doing many things in early schooling that set our students up for failure, both in their present and in their future. Young children are being asked to sit still for too long, to be quiet for too long, to fill out too many worksheets and take too many tests. They are not given enough time to talk to one another, to explore their world, to ask questions, and to pretend.
My belief in the importance of play is not new (I talked about it on the ASCD Whole Child podcast in early October) but this article has done some powerful reinforcing. It may take me a bit, but I have every intention of making some structural changes in my classroom to allow for more play. I hope, by the new year, to share some successes in that area. (Which means, if you want, call me out in a month - this is a time accountability makes perfect sense to me!)


The Science Goddess said...

Would also be interesting to see how the age for compulsory attendance varies among states. In Washington, children are not required to attend school until age 7. I haven't run across any families that didn't start kids by age 6, but I don't know if they realize they're allowed to keep them home another year.

Anonymous said...

Your post speaks to such a critical question regarding the youngest learners. What is the importance of play at any age? Many educators, including Dewey and Malaguzzi, believed watching children at play helps provide insight into ways the curriculum might be developed around their interests. For me, I also think about young students' vestibular and motor activity - both important for attention - which are still maturing. That is why play is even more significant at early ages. It is building a foundation that will serve that child for life. Cheers to you for making space for play. I look forward to learning how this effects your class.