Play is the young child's most powerful tool for learning. Yet how many times have you heard a parent say, "All my child wants to do is play!" or "At school the teachers just let the children play!" Communicating with families about the meaning and importance of play is an ongoing challenge for directors. I've found that it's helpful to begin by exploring these basic concepts with parents:

Play is a powerful avenue for learning. Child development and brain research experts agree that children are active meaning-makers from birth. Babies arrive in this world with the capacity to respond, imitate, initiate, explore, and eventually engage in symbolic processes. Play is young children's natural learning mechanism.

Play extends language. In their early years, children acquire an astounding amount of vocabulary and grammatical logic. Language development and play go hand in hand as children use and extend the uses of language in play-dialogues with their peers.

Play expands symbolic thinking. Beginning in the second year, toddlers move from simple peek-a-boo and chasing games to more complex, imaginative play. Dramatic-play ideas involve the need for props as children use objects at hand to represent-or symbolize-whatever their dramas demand.

Children's abilities to concentrate and be flexible are evident in their play. Concentration and flexibility are key components of creative thinking, necessary for satisfaction and success throughout the school years-and well beyond.

Helping Parents Foster Play Throughout the Day

It's easy for parents to compare their child with others at school or in the neighborhood. They may question whether or not he should be occupied in structured classes outside of school. They may wonder if early academic skills should be stressed at the expense of play time. Directors can reassure families that play is not only joyous, but involves big concepts and pre-academic opportunities that can't be missed. Here are some suggestions for fostering play opportunities throughout the day:

Early morning or evening quiet times. Encourage parents to designate and equip a space in the home where their child can be encouraged to play alone or become engaged with another child.

During the day. Suggest that parents find some time to observe their child in play at school. Ask them to look for the interweaving of themes and the negotiations children are involved in as they create dramas together in a group. Alert them to the "power of pretending," as props such as wooden cubes and lengths of string become "meatballs and spaghetti."

After school or on weekends. Let parents know that outdoor play can offer as many opportunities for learning as indoor dramatic play. In the yard, playground, or park, outdoor play spaces offer expanded areas for children to enact dramas using large-motor skills, or to collect pebbles, twigs, and acorns for counting and "cooking."

Prepare Play Presentations

No single approach is sufficient in presenting the power of play to parents. You will reach the largest audience by using a variety of approaches. These might include parent meetings or "guest speaker nights," audiovisual events, providing written materials, or involving parents in play experiences.

Videotape and Discuss. Follow these steps to prepare a video presentation of the value of play for parents:

  • Arrange for a staff member to videotape children at play in classrooms of different ages, or assume this role yourself.
  • Review the tape in a staff meeting, making note of the main points that illustrate the important benefits of play at each age level.
  • With you as moderator, present a "Power of Play Panel Discussion" featuring your teachers talking about play as seen in the video segments from their own classrooms. Include plenty of time for questions from parents of the "Starring Players!"

Offer a Floor Time Workshop. Hold a parent workshop based on the work of Dr. Stanley Greenspan. A Floor Time video and curriculum guide are available from Scholastic. Social and emotional aspects of play take center stage in this video, which features parents and teachers "following the child's lead" in play scenarios with children. Guide the ensuing discussion to meet the needs of families in your school. Consider offering this workshop at an early-morning breakfast meeting when children have already arrived in their classrooms.

Create a Play Column. In your school or center newsletter, write a special column for each issue on a different aspect of play and its importance for young children's development. This will allow you to clearly articulate your belief in the power of play, and give parents reference points to refer to.

Hold a "Playtime for Parents" Evening. Offer parents blocks and block accessories to play with during an evening parent meeting. These terrific materials can help parents gain insight into the challenges of negotiating, choosing materials, ordering, balancing, and brainstorming! Use table blocks as well as unit blocks to allow for smaller groupings. End with a sharing time, during which each group has a chance to describe the challenges and learning experiences they encountered.

Extending Play at Home

Now that the parents in your school or center have a feel for the power of play, you can offer some additional suggestions for extending play at home. Here are some ideas to share with parents:

  • Let your child know that her play is important to you. This can be accomplished by interested observation from the "sidelines." A few notes may serve as reminders of particularly delightful or intriguing play scenes that can lead to discussion at meals, bath-time, or bedtime.
  • If it feels appropriate, follow your child's lead when you are invited to enter or extend her play drama. In this case, it will be important to remember that you are just another actor-not the director!
  • Provide appropriate props to enhance dramatic play. Dress-ups might include some old grown-up shoes, a jacket or vest, or a well-worn hat. Old sofa pillows and a sheet can inspire the setting. Blocks of different shapes and sizes, miniature figures, cars, or trains can be combined in a multitude of ways by your "master player."

Your continued endorsement of the power of play will reassure parents that children are never "just playing." They'll feel certain that their children are developing the flexibility necessary for creative thinking, and the confidence and concentration that will foster a life-long love of learning.