Children play for a reason. There are very specific, very real, biological, emotional, cognitive, and human reasons children are irrevocably compelled to and consumed with play. Play is an essential vehicle for learning in children’s lives. When they are immersed in the depths of profound play sessions, they are learning multifaceted concepts which allow their minds to decipher and make sense of our world. They are picking apart and putting together again pieces of the complicated puzzle of the life they were born into. As adults, often we don’t understand the fascination. We may even get frustrated at the way little ones make everything a playful adventure and make playthings of everything.
According to Lev Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development, children’s play develops cognition, language, social interaction, imagination, and self-regulation. As an influential founding theorist in early childhood psychology, philosophy, and education, his ideas about play have contributed to establishing the structure for progressive education and developmentally-appropriate practice.
Through play, children also express and practice personal life experiences which helps to process dialogue and events. Children learn academic, intellectual, and practical concepts that allow for essential development in these areas to progress. Understanding a little about progressive pedagogy and what is appropriate for our children to be learning at specific developmental levels can help us to adjust our lens about parenting and caretaking, education, play, and developmentally appropriate practice.
As an early childhood educator, one of the most frequent comments or concerns I hear is, “the kids are always playing here – all they do is play.” Yes! In my classroom we do play, all the time – it is something my three-year old students and I do often, among other vehicles for learning. This is an aspect of developmentally-appropriate practice. I attempt to adhere to developmentally-appropriate practice in my classroom because it is a research-based approach to teaching which seeks to offer educational counterparts to developmental levels. For instance, it would not be developmentally appropriate for me to expose my classroom of 3s to computational math. Instead, as teachers, we use data, observations, and other assessment tools to determine a child’s developmental levels. Based on this research, and research about child development, I can make informed decisions about what activities and lessons would be most appropriate and ultimately effective for the children. John Dewey (often referred to as the founding father of progressive pedagogy) notes that it must be deeply connected to students, curriculum must offer continuity and interaction, and it should also present students with opportunities to engage in educative experiences.
The other day, my class and I made pudding. To some, much like playing, it might have seemed frivolous – far too much fun to be educative. But it was deeply educative – and delicious too. We had been discussing things to do during winter. We made comforting chocolate and vanilla pudding on a cold day to both learn and enjoy. This activity worked on many practical, intellectual and academic content areas.
We practiced math and science skills— by measuring milk, sugar, cornstarch, butter, vanilla extract, salt, egg yolks, and cocoa powder. We discussed quantity, weight, textures, and viscosity, the concepts of translucent and opaque, sweet, and salty. My goodness, what properties were there in cornstarch that made the milk thicken like that? Why did the egg yolks make it all silky? We sat around and talked about our families – who cooked in our houses and what did we do to help? How did it feel to eat something warm from our family’s kitchen? How were our experiences different, how were they the same? We were making bridges in our minds forged of glassy melted sugar— they were comprised of memories, tastes, and feelings (past and present).
Aside from the intellectual and personal connections we explored during that activity, we worked on fine and gross motor skills, exploring speed, direction, and motion as we whipped the ingredients left or right in quick circles. The students practiced following steps found in the recipe which strengthened concepts of sequential thinking. We practiced taking turns, delegating tasks and working collaboratively as a team – language, communication and social development were ever so smoothly and artfully woven into a lesson. We practiced utilizing tools found in our daily lives. We practiced reasoning and problem solving skills. Did we ever touch something hot? No, not without the help of adults and the right tools, like oven mitts. How could we cool food before putting it to our mouths? We could blow like wind or the Big Bad Wolf.
There is always such deep learning in activities and lessons which directly speak to the children we are serving – this is one of the reasons developmentally-appropriate practice is an essential component of early childhood education. When curriculum and practice meet our students at their developmental levels, challenge them, and genuinely mean something to them, learning sticks. It’s a good thing developmentally-appropriate practice is just as educational, profound and integrative as it is interesting and edifying — we wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re just playing.