During the Week of the Young Child, Support Creative Play

It’s the Week of the Young Child, an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), designed to bring national attention to the needs of children ages zero to eight.

The week was first celebrated in 1971 to raise awareness about the foundational nature of the early childhood years to children’s success in academic settings and in life.Swing-300x449

NAEYC encourages all of us to spend some time this week thinking about how we can better meet the needs of young children, their families, and caregivers.  At the Rogers Center that means paying attention to how we can ensure that children are using new technology for learning and in developmentally appropriate ways.

Last month I wrote about how the Pittsburgh region has become a center for those who care deeply about supporting learning for very young children and exploring the potential for early learning with technology and digital media. I highlighted the work of the Kids+Creativity Network and places like the new Early Education STEM Center at Marshall University in W.Va., and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC).

PAEYC is leading the charge here in Pittsburgh to make sure “all children should have the opportunity to learn from each other and with one another,” as the organization’s leader Michelle Figlar said in a recent Q&A at Kidsburgh.

Under her leadership PAEYC is working to support early childhood educators, families, and government leaders to ensure access to high-quality care and education for young children in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

PAEYC has expanded the week of the young child into a month-long celebration and series of learning activities.  One of the subthemes is “play, where learning begins.”

With new pressure on children to master academic skills at young and younger ages, it’s easy to forget these days that the most important learning, especially for younger children, happens through creative play.

Figlar says children should be  “surrounded by activity and play and an optimum curriculum,” in order to build a solid foundation for their learning.

Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib, has done much of the germinal research to show how important play is to learning.

“One of the things we’ve learned,” Gopnik said in a recent Q&A at NAEYC, “is that when children engage in pretend play, have imaginary friends, or explore alternative worlds, they are learning what people are like, how people think, and the kinds of things people can do. This helps children learn to understand themselves and other people. We also have evidence that this kind of understanding leads to social adjustment in school and social competence in life.”

Gopnik says that having a chance for exploration and creative play in the preschool years “turns us into adults who are flexible and sophisticated thinkers.”

What does this mean in the digital age? With more and children being exposed to digital tools at younger ages, how is this affecting play? And how can parents and caregivers ensure that these new tools enhance and not detract from creative exploration?

“In early childhood, what we hear is fears that technology will replace creative play and art and those kinds of things,” Chip Donohue, our senior fellow and director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at the Erikson Institute  told us recently. “There are concerns that kids will stop going outside to play or become socially isolated. “

But these concerns, Donohue says, are often based on older technologies like TV that encourage mostly passive viewing. With the entrance of new tools like the iPad, Donahue says this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Roberta Schomburg, Associate Dean and Professor of the School of Education at Carlow University and Rogers Center senior fellow, agrees. But she emphasizes that balance matters.

“[I]f we continually think about balance, “ she said in the same interview, “so we make sure we allow time for kids to be active and engage with other kids and play with building blocks and paint, and think about digital media as just one more set of materials for kids to engage with, then we’ll be OK. Making sure we keep that balance is critical.”

Our senior fellow David Kleeman visited the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany to find out how technology is changing what our kids play with and how they play. He says that well-designed tech toys leave room for the child’s active contribution. Apps and other tools should give children a chance to lead creative play, to imagine something from nothing, and to create their own stories and narratives.

Gopnik says she often hears from parents who are concerned about their child’s academic preparedness, and don’t see the value of creative exploration. She says parents and educators should remember “there’s hard evidence that children learn more things through play than they would in some academic setting.” Digital tools should mirror that.

Alice Wilder and Carla Fisher will be hosting another discussion here at the end of the month on best practices and digital tools that promote creative play. And, in case you missed it, their post on what makes a good e-book is worth checking out as well.

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