Three Tips to Advocate for Play

As an early childhood professional, you know the important role that play has in children’s lives. Children’s play is focused, purposeful, and full of learning. As children play, they master motor development, learn language and social skills, think creatively, and make cognitive leaps.

But how do you advocate for child-led, play-based learning, especially with the recent increased focus on early learning standards? How do you explain to parents that playing is learning?

In their book, Let Them Play: An Early Learning (Un)Curriculum, Jeff A. Johnson and Denita Dinger—early childhood professionals who, together, represent more than 30 years of down-on-the-floor-with-the-kids-experience—talk in detail about the critical need for play. They explain that while the push for academic learning for young children is well intentioned, it has the unintended consequences of “sterile, boring, and passionless early childhood programs that fail to trust children as learners.” Their response is that programs should support children’s curiosity, creativity, social skills, self-regulation, problem-solving skills, and knowledge of the world—and the way to do this is to let children play.

Let Them Play will show you how to embrace play, trust children as learners, and value childhood. Jeff and Denita lay out all of the pieces of what makes up an (un)curriculum—an alternative to the academic push that is built on a solid foundation of research and real-world experience—and then offer support as you put those pieces together and practice the principles of a play-based learning environment.

540535“Programs offering an (un)curriculum make choices based on brain development research; nurture individual children; see everything as a learning opportunity; base planning choices on children’s needs, likes, and interests; support children’s autonomy; and focus on real, hands-on children’s play. A primary goal of such programs is to push formalized academic curriculums out of early childhood education and slow the rush of childhood. This is not an easy endeavor, and programs willing to take it on need support.”

—Jeff A. Johnson and Denita Dinger in Let Them Play

There is a lot of substance in the book, but today we wanted to share some of the ways you can advocate for play-based learning. From Let Them Play, here is an excerpt about pushing the curriculum back up and letting young children experience the learning power of play:

“Our current educational system tends to look at what children are expected to know and achieve down the road and then pushes them at ever-younger ages in the direction of those skills. After all, kids have to learn to read in elementary school, so why not get them started reading in preschool? If we teach a six-year-old’s skill to a four-year-old, then we’re doing a good thing, because he’ll be more advanced, right? These beliefs have led to ‘curriculum creep’—kids doing things in preschool that used to be part of a first-grade curriculum.

The problem is that preschoolers are not first graders and four-year-olds are not six-year-olds. Their brains are fundamentally different. A child needs to build four-year-old skills and experiences before she can become a six-year-old and learn six-year-old stuff. Don’t look into the future to determine your curriculum. Instead, look right in front of you. Focus on what kids in your care need right now, in this very moment. This is the best way to prepare for the future.

Have the courage to push the curriculum back up. Make play the center of early childhood and let kids be kids. Allow them their silliness. Let them play, explore, and discover their worlds at their own pace, in their own way.”

If you’re a proponent for play, Jeff and Denita share three tips to help you advocate for your play-based program:

Keep learning. Stay on top of the research and keep informed about legislation and policies affecting early learning. Don’t just gobble the sound bites on the evening news—dig deeper.

Speak up. Change comes when strong voices speak up and demand change. Share your knowledge and experience with parents, peers, and leaders on local, state, and national levels.

Live it. If you believe we are rushing childhood, you should do everything you can to become an agent of change. Live your beliefs. Make sure the children in your care get to be children. Talking about the importance of play and childhood is not the same as making play important in your day-to-day life.”

Jeff and Denita’s book, Let Them Play, is available from Redleaf Press. Want to learn more about the authors? Read our Q&A with Jeff and Denita or visit their Facebook page. (Visit our Facebook page, too!)

541273After you read Let Them Play, don’t miss Let’s Play: (Un)Curriculum Early Learning Adventures, Jeff and Denita’s follow-up handbook that is filled with 39 child-led, open-ended play adventures (plus more than 225 play variations!) that are packed with learning. Let’s Play builds on the early learning principles outlined in Let Them Play and is a great resource as you transition to a play-based, child-led (un)curriculum. It’s available for pre-order now through Redleaf Press and will be available in January 2014.

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