I'VE SPENT MOST OF TODAY (SUNDAY) WITH MY FIVE-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter. They dug in the sand, played in the water, made a dam, rode a bike, pushed a wheeled toy, threw a ball, played 101 Dalmatians (with a friend), turned cartwheels (my daughter put her hands on the ground and looked back through her legs - stage one of a somersault!), swung on the swings, played chase, read two books, played with toy cars, went for a wild ride in the shopping cart, talked, sang, and danced! All this - plus the normal daily routine - happened in the space of about six hours, with one activity flowing almost seamlessly into another with little direction from me. (Okay, so the shopping cart ride was my idea ... )
It takes time for good play to happen, and when we don't allow that time, we interfere with development and learning. Look back through the list of my children's activities. What learning outcomes do you see? Which would you be willing to give up, willing to count as noncontributory to development, to learning, to language growth, to fun?
One of the things early childhood practitioners have come to understand and to fiercely defend is the notion that development takes time: You can't force it to occur more rapidly. We also know that play is a cornerstone of development - most of what young children learn, they learn through play and playful interaction with their environments and the people in them. Time for play is critical, and children have to have an adequate amount of time for play to make its contribution to development. Unfortunately, the recent trend toward reducing or, worse yet, removing free play or recess from the early childhood curriculum puts children at risk. Children may not only miss the opportunity for meaningful play to develop - where themes abound and language supports the elaboration of those themes - they may miss the opportunity for play to contribute to physical development in a fundamental way. Cardiovascular fitness requires sustained activity. Fifteen minutes once a day is simply not enough physical-activity time for young children! Here is what you can do to incorporate as much opportunity as possible for physical play into your daily routine.
For all Ages: Observe Play Styles
When you watch young children as they enter the play environment, you'll notice a variety of styles of engagement. Some children rush headlong for the swings; others systematically sample from various play options. Still others seem to wander aimlessly through the play space before finally settling into an activity. All of these approaches are acceptable and probably reflect a particular learning style or perhaps the mood of the day. Whatever the case may be, what children start with during play is not always what they end with-assuming they have time to try different play options before they settle into an activity.
Make Time for Babies
For infants, time for play may have to revolve around nap schedules. This may mean scheduling for those variances in wake-sleep cycles for different infants. Some babies may need more morning play, others more afternoon play. Teachers can divide the awake infants and the asleep infants into groups to provide time for play. Some staff members can provide watchful care for the sleepers while the awake babies get play time.
Keep Toddlers Busy
Toddlers seem to be like the pink bunny in the battery commercial: They keep going and going. Long periods of time are necessary for toddlers to practice developing skills in an unhurried manner - up the steps, down the steps. Moving from place to place and caring things as they go have a high priority for toddlers. They can stay busy almost up to the moment they drop and go to sleep. To get more physical play into their days, plan unstructured time in the classroom. Remember too that some toddlers are more physical in their learning styles than others, so you will need to arrange climbing experiences for these children.
Preschoolers and Kindergartners Set Their Own Pace
Preschoolers and kindergartners need time to sample, to consider the options and move into play settings that build slowly into sustained activity that is usually focused on thematic play. When preschoolers and kindergartners are given 15 minutes, they barely begin to get underway, either in physical activity or thematic play. Children in these age groups may also need more control over when they play. Can you schedule your staffing to allow children to choose outdoor play as they need it-rather than as a predetermined "one time fits all" occasion? When my colleagues and I did this at the Auburn University at Montgomery Child Development Center, we trusted the children to plan their own time in a well-designed space. And, generally, it worked! They regulated their time well, spending some time indoors and some outdoors.