Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.
During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”
I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”
Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?
When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.
It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.
I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.
As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.