I’ve been a part of early learning for nearly 25 years now. I’ve taught over 500 children from infants to age 6 and raised my own six children in a licensed family childcare home/preschool. I’ve seen most everything and anything concerning children and yet, I have so much more to learn. I’ve been listening, reading, and watching the current tide back to childhood “PLAY” as promoted by many respected organizations and teachers in the early learning field. I understand the movement and the THEORY of it all; I just hope that in 5-10 years, we haven’t moved the PLAY PENDULUM too far.
There are many reasons that PLAY for our children has decreased and some negative outcomes have surfaced. When we had a surge of mothers back into the workforce in the 60’s and 70’s along with the Women’s Liberation Movement, we no longer had as many mothers at home and thus children were not seen as often in the neighborhoods, but in care with a friend, grandparent, etc. Childcare was becoming a major issue and the need for quality childcare became part of the national agenda. Children were left for longer and longer periods of time in childcare or at home alone; there was NO TIME for outdoor play before families had to prepare for the rush of the evening and the next morning. All early learning professionals began calling for greater QUALITY childcare because we now had childcare providers and childcare centers raising many of our Nation’s children. Many of our young children were now being cared for by someone other than Mom or Dad for 50-60 hrs. each week.
Then came the 80’s and 90’s and national early learning organizations called for an increase in STRUCTURED learning activities (QUALITY) in childcare settings and the newly evolving, “after-school programs.” If our Nation’s children were going to be “babysat” for 50-60 hrs. each week….our children deserved more “educational time.” Childcare providers who began babysitting to supplement the family income now were given national and state incentives to “go back to school” to prepare themselves to teach children in their care. Childcare centers, after-school programs, and family home childcare providers were now in HUGE demand. Structured learning within those environments rose as did the call from parents to teach more “academics” so that children would be brighter, faster, and smarter at the earliest possible age. Then, we saw a rise in every program for young children that required over-stimulated tiny minds to take in more information. Baby Flash Cards, structured music, athletic “conditioning” programs for children younger than six, and many programs were swamped with calls to “academically” and physically educate children at a younger and younger age. Parents, thinking that they were doing a good thing for their kids, drove them to every lesson available which futher reduced any time left-over for just…PLAY. That kind of pure, unstructured, get dirty in the mud, flash-light tag kind of…PLAY.
Today, the call is on our schools, after-school programs, and childcare facilities to increase PLAY time for our kids. We now realize what TOO much of structured learning has taken away from our young children. Schools and childcare facilities are now “under the gun” to provide more PLAY because children are not getting enough at home or on the weekends; as a result, we are dealing with a population of children that are less active, less fit, less stimulated by the opportunities that spontaneous play can provide that other learning opportunities do not. Play is wonderful, developmentally appropriate, and FUN; but let’s not dismiss so quickly the value of structured learning in GUIDING a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn. While ADULTS may call some structured learning as WORK, young children do not distinguish between WORK and PLAY when there is a BALANCE of both in classrooms and at home.
Play is wonderful, but only if we can find the TRUE balance of the pendulum between play, love, structured learning for growth and self-control, and adult guidance that is necessary for each and every child to have a successful beginning.