Living and working on a farm these past ten years, I have become increasingly convinced that we modern humans have much to learn from the animals around us – both wild and domesticated. One of the unavoidable lessons of farm life is that young animals play. While our mature cows tend to focus on activities like eating, protecting their young, and grooming, calves spend their time frolicking, chasing one another, and generally testing things out. While the casual observer might consider their activities trivial, by observing them over time one can easily see how play helps prepare animals for later life.
With human children, the importance of play has sometimes been underestimated. Many classrooms for young children have tended to emphasize academic preparation, especially as we’ve entered the computer age. “All too many of us believe even young children should be working, learning to read, and doing arithmetic, and perhaps a few beginning computer skills,” notes Dr. David Elkind, professor emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University. Elkind believes that a young child’s most important learning comes instead from “self-created experiences.”
Dr. Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, has spent years researching how play affects learning. She compares children at play to “pint-sized scientists testing theories,” and says the best stimulation for learning is to let preschoolers pretend, explore, and play.
Nationally recognized Marin County-based child psychologist Dr. Madeleine Levine would likely agree. Levine has written extensively about the problems she encounters in teenage patients who have been pushed too hard and too early. Asked recently how a parent should best discover a child’s interests and abilities, Levine answered: “Let them play. That’s where they learn about sharing, problem solving, getting along with others, and being creative.”
The play-based learning philosophy is warmly embraced by Bolinas’s preschool. Laura Di Stasi, the Bolinas Children’s Center’s head teacher, describes the school’s approach as “loosely based” on Reggio Emilia ideas, which originated in post-World War II Italy. Rather than being the targets of instruction, children are considered to have a very active role in their learning.
Important parts of the approach include exposing the children to nature, extended outside playtime, and allowing children to follow their own instincts. Di Stasi, who has been involved in preschool education for over three decades, says that it’s important for teachers to provide materials and an environment for learning, then “step back and let the children take it from there.” Such an approach is sometimes difficult for adults but Di Stasi believes it is the best way to teach children how to take personal responsibility for the choices they make.
She feels that the Bolinas preschool’s space is especially well suited for the school’s play-based philosophy. “Movement is so important. Some schools are deliberately set up to restrict it. But I want them to feel they have the freedom to move – both indoors and, especially, outdoors.” The school’s indoor area has a large, open middle space, surrounded by a half-dozen areas, each dedicated to specific activities. There’s an area for puzzles, one for drawing and writing, an area for dramatic play, blocks, one for drawing, writing and other crafts, and another area for truck, trains and cars. A large easel is continually set up, allowing three children to paint alongside one another. Outside, the school has a large grassy yard, sand box, climbing structure, swing-set, vegetable garden, and a track for tricycles and other vehicles. A significant part of every day, except those with very inclement weather, is spent outdoors.
Recently, the school set up its science discovery table with plastic insects. Some children took the bugs outside, giving them histories and adventures. “It has been fascinating to watch them create insect families and story lines,” Di Stasi reports.
Ultimately, Bolinas Children’s Center director Ward Young and teacher Di Stasi believe they are providing children an environment that will not only engage and entertain the children, it will prepare them well for life. “Although it is counter-intuitive, the more children learn from their own play when they are young, the better prepared they are to learn from academic instruction when they are older,” Dr. Elkind has concluded.