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Last week, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) hosted a great series of blog posts exploring the role of play in early childhood care and education. They were written by leading researchers and thinkers in early childhood education, people who have devoted their careers to understanding how children learn and what early experiences can help them on the way. They covered topics like long-term outcomes of play, how children spontaneously play with math concepts, and how play acts as hands-on experiential learning.

Perhaps my favorite was Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff’s post on playful learning. They describe the fierce debate that has raged between those who advocate for direct instruction for children and those who favor an open, constructivist model that is nearly entirely child-directed. Like so many debates in early childhood (and education, and psychology--remember nature vs. nurture?) evidence is emerging that the best experiences lie somewhere in the middle. The most effective preschool programs offer an enriching curriculum combined with lots of opportunities for hands on, child-centered play, and these programs are especially strong when the play is scaffolded carefully by an engaged, thoughtful teacher. To quote from their post:

“In guided play, learning remains child-directed. This is a key point. Children learn targeted information through exploration of a well-designed and structured environment ... and through the support of adults who ask open-ended questions to gently guide the child’s exploration.”

Is this information getting out to teachers and program directors? I think it is, although perhaps it has been a little slow going. I strongly recommend that you explore the whole series on the Preschool Matters...Today! website; it’s really thought-provoking and worth a read. And if you work with teachers who need to learn more about the central role they have in scaffolding learning during play, look into the online Introduction to the CLASS Tool or other professional development resources from Teachstone.

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