Learning Through Play

A parent of a Co-Op Preschool student in Mundelein, Illinois once said to me, “Look at them. They have no idea they are learning.”

I recently read an article by Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. The article made me wonder why the state of education has gone so far off the deep end.

In her article she asks two very important questions.

  1. Shouldn’t very young children be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover?
  2. Perhaps direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills, but what about curiosity and creativity—abilities that are even more important for learning in the long run?

The best way to learn is to approach a new situation or problem with as many senses as possible to discover information and create new and unexpected ideas.

One morning, in my preschool classroom, I set up an experiment on the science table with the following items:

  • three sponges: two natural sponges of differing size and one green cellulose sponge
  • two plastic containers: one filled halfway with water, one empty
  • eye droppers
  • turkey basters
  • two large bath towels

One student arrived early. Kevin wandered over to check out the science experiment for the week. He called out, “Mrs. Buikema, I figured out your experiment. This sponge—he pointed to the long natural sponge—is gonna hold more water than the green one. Can I try it now?”

Kevin seemed unhappy to wait until after group time, but was okay with it because no one else could conduct the experiment either. Being fair is important, as is following a predictable schedule. Each student had an opportunity to play in the science center as well as the other centers in the room.

Learning occurs everywhere, not just in “academic” centers. Using the block center requires cooperation, fine and gross motor skills, and creativity.

When adults provide a safe environment for children to learn and the space to work out problems on their own, without direct instruction, the students will discover creative ways to solve problems in unexpected ways. The children will retain their new found knowledge for a longer time because they have discovered it for themselves.

For more on this topic see Alison Gopnik’s article: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/03/why_preschool_shouldnt_be_like_school.html

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