Learning About the World Through Play

  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2

Pressure on Play Today 

Children can use play effectively when they are able to engage in play in creative and meaningful ways. Children are born with the potential to become "good players." What we provide in the environment plays a vital role in determining how fully that potential gets developed. Let's face it, today's hurried lifestyle, as well as the new emphasis on school performance, diminishes the role of play in children's lives. Many children today have little time to play in creative and open-ended ways. Play time is being reduced in some school settings in favor of teaching "the basics" at younger and younger ages. 

Children and their working parents have busy lives, so there is less time for play out of school. For safety and economic reasons, the neighborhood play culture that used to exist in many communities is becoming a thing of the past. When children do have time to play, they often watch TV instead - four hours a day on average, not counting additional time spent watching videotapes or playing video games.

Many children have become accustomed to toys (many of which are linked to television and other media) or highly structured activities to show them what to do and have a hard time creating their own play over which they have control--the kind of play that leads to optimal learning.

Alfredo goes into the dramatic-play area and starts setting the table with plates, forks, glasses, and napkins. Then he goes to the stove and fills the large bowls with "food" and places them in the middle of the table. "Come on everybody, ya es hora de comer Vamanos! Lets eat!" he says excitedly. Nancy David, and Ming decide to join the fun. Alfredo says, "In the papi and I sit here, and Ming's the mami and she sits here, and you are the kids so you sit there. "He then asks Ming to serve the food. Daniel interrupts and says, "No, I wanna serve me!"

"The mami always serves the food, "Alfredo insists, "Right, Nancy?"

Nancy looks between Alfedo and David. -"Well, at MY house my dad cooks and we take turns putting the plates on the table. " The three children turn to Ming, silently asking her, "What happens at your house?"

Melinda, the teacher of these 4-year-olds, observes this wonderful interaction from the sidelines. Earlier that week, she had placed plastic foods, dishes, cooking utensils, and pots indigenous to a variety of cultures in the dramatic-play area, hoping that children would use them to begin discussions on the differences and similarities between themselves. She recognized that the food and cooking theme offered rich possibilities.

Melinda had recently noticed that some children were beginning to point out differences among themselves and were using those differences to exclude classmates from play. She hoped that by using props, music, photographs, books, and other materials that reflected diversity, the children might realize that these differences make the classroom-- in fact, the whole community - a vibrant and interesting place to live.

Celebrating Diversity Through Play

Cultural diversity means that there are people with different views and experiences living, working, and playing together in a community. Cultural diversity includes music, clothes, and food; it is reflected in the ways people relate to family members and elders; the games they play; their celebrations-- familial, secular, and nonsecular. Through our curriculum, which begins with childrens own experiences, we can gradually help children understand, accept, and celebrate the diversity of people through play on a daily basis.

In the dramatic-play situation described above, Melinda started to think about how to build on what Alfredo, Nancy, Ming, and David had begun in their play. She thought about the differences in their home lives and how she could use her observations to help inform her social studies curriculum. Here's what she did:

  • The class meeting time focused on children's talk about their home lives; for example, who lived in the home, what languages were spoken, where their families came from, and who did what jobs. Nancy talked more about the ways her parents shared responsibilities at home, while Ming spoke of relatives who enjoyed speaking Japanese with her grandmother.
  • Children were encouraged to bring in a photo or share a story about their family.
  • Children used the props Melinda made available to turn the dramatic-play center into a restaurant. The food, utensils, and other materials were from the different cultural groups represented in the classroom and the community, including Mexican-American, Cantonese, and Russian.
  • Melinda brought in menus from area restaurants, and the children cut pictures of foods from magazines to glue onto their own menus. Parents who spoke a second language wrote the names of the foods in both English and their native language.
  • Children started talking about their families and the different languages spoken at home. Melinda invited parents to come to the classroom to talk about where their families came from and trips they had taken to see family members, as well as to share any languages they spoke.

Melinda went to the library to find stories representing the different cultural groups in the community. She discoveyed that there were not many books available in the library about some groups, so she worked with parents and others in the community to create "home books" in both a home language and English. Adults in the community agreed to make story tapes in English and home languages so that children could begin to have experiences that would allow them to learn another language. Children were encouraged to listen to the tapes and to share the stories with one another.

Your curriculum-building efforts can enhance children's play and learning in important ways. The activities Melinda introduced-the shared photos and stories, the parent visits to the classroom--provide rich and meaningful ways to expand diversity play. From a multicultural perspective, the focus on family experience will help children learn to appreciate each others diverse backgrounds as well as their own, centering on something they all share-their families. Look and listen carefully as children work and play together to try to assess the specific needs of the children in your group.

Expanding the Power of Play

Young children have long engaged in play as a powerful way of learning about the world. Play provides a safe place for children to:

  • Learn new concepts, explore new attitudes, and develop new skills.
  • Work out an understanding and mastery of potentially exciting, worrisome, and/or confusing experiences in their world, including safety and separation issues.
  • Transform their experiences into creations that are uniquely their own.
  • Build meaningful connections between their experiences at home, at school, and in the community.
  • Learn more about each other's families and diverse backgrounds.

In play, children use their current knowledge (what they already know about themselves and the world around them) and skills (their ability to build tables with blocks or use markers to make menus) to try to recreate an experience and gain an understanding of it. A diversity curriculum recognizes the powerful role that play can serve in the learning process. Children bring what they have seen and care about into their play-their experiences every day at home and in the community.

It is through play that children can develop an appreciation of similarities and differences in ways that connect directly to who they are and what they know about and try to sort out "what is and is not like me" and "what do the differences mean?" Play also provides a sense of power and control that comes from mastering new experiences, ideas, and concerns. These feelings of accomplishment help children build confidence in themselves as learners who are capable of working out new ideas and mastering new experiences, even when they are disturbing, both in their play and in other more formal learning situations.

We all know that young children learn best by "doing"by trying out new ideas, experiences, and skills in ways that are personally meaningful. As we watch children play, we, as the important adults in their lives, can learn valuable lessons about them-what they care about and understand, what they are trying to figure out, and what new input (materials, knowledge, and skills) might help further their understanding, development, and learning. Supported by adults, play can provide an effective vehicle for working on a variety of concepts and skills-from understanding and celebrating diversity to practice in basic literacy and numeracy skills-- that are important for young children to learn and that we, as teachers, are increasingly being held accountable to teach.

Strategies for Supporting Children's Play

In today's world of increased time constraints and pressures on children's play, we need to take a more active and deliberate role in ensuring children's ability and right to play. In the long run, our efforts to help children learn about themselves, about others, and about their diverse world through play, can help them become more competent, knowledgeable, and resourceful members of society while you have a more effective and fulfilling teaching experience.

Keep in mind that no two children play in quite the same way, nor do they learn the same things from their play experiences. Each child brings something different to the play-different family backgrounds, different experiences and concerns, different dispositions, different strengths and needs.

Time & Space for Play

Make sure there is ample time for sustained play to occur. Frequent interruptions and brief opportunities for play diminish the value of play in children's eyes and will discourage them from developing the sustained involvement that helps them get the most from play.

Provide well-organized space that children can use independently. For example, store play props in dear bins with labels so that children can easily see the materials available to them.

Play Props

Supply materials that represent the diverse experiences of the children and support working through an appreciation of similarities and differences. These can include multiracial dolls, plastic human figures children can use to represent their family members, and plastic animals to represent children's pets.

Avoid materials that are highly structured, stereotyped, or promote antisocial or competitive behavior. Refrain from offering toys that are replicas of television and movie characters and electronic toys that perform just a few, highly repetitive functions.

Choose materials and props that help children create their roles around various themes in which they have expressed interest. For example, if children are interested in travel, provide props such as suitcases, postcards, and used airline tickets.

Teach children how to use a wide range of open-ended materials and toys - such as blocks, play dough, cardboard boxes, and dress-up item&-in the service of their play.

Make the Connection

Help children bring the compelling content from their own lives into their play where they can meaningful-ly work on and learn from it.

Observe children as they play to identify compelling interests and themes that you can use to build curriculum.

Use play as one avenue for building meaningful connections between home and school. As you do, help children develop an appreciation of the similarities and differences among them.

Take an active role in facilitating children's play, but do not take control of the play away from them-give them the room they need to work things through at their own level of thinking and understanding.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart the Development of Play - Age by Age (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Curriculum Development, Culture and Diversity, Communication and Language Development, Sharing and Taking Turns, Sharing, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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