A friend who used to do a lot of substituting in Outer Cape schools once described a scene in a classroom for four-year-olds that was well-designed for all kinds of pretend play. The most popular area was elaborately furnished as a doctor’s office, with lab coats, make-believe stethoscopes and syringes, and so on. One day, my friend overheard two girls chatting there. One said to the other, “You know, this is really a rehab.”
Play is a driving force in children’s lives — it’s the engine of their development. Decades of research tell us that young children learn best through play, active exploration, and social interactions. No one teaches children how to play, yet they all know how. It is hardly a frivolous activity. It is how children invent ideas, develop imagination, and learn to regulate their emotions and think for themselves. It’s the foundation on which later academic skills are built.
Not only does play foster cognitive development, it is also the primary way that young children maintain emotional balance. Play is how kids cope.
We see reports of how children are playing out the Covid experience. They zap the virus, they wave it away, they make medicine and pretend to help sick people. These mirror accounts of children playing out other challenges and traumas they have faced. Once children return to school, they are going to need a lot of time to play in order to process what they’ve been through with Covid-19. This is what will help them regain a sense of security for going forward.
The pandemic has affected young children differently, depending on their economic circumstances. Across the U.S., young kids in low-income Black and Latinx communities have paid the biggest price in terms of family illness, loss of loved ones, uncertainty, and disruption. They’ve had a much harder time staying connected to school online due to lack of computers, bandwidth, and having quiet spaces in which to work. Children whose parents can work from home and who have more economic security have had big adjustments, too, but less debilitating ones.
On the Outer Cape, we also have disparities, albeit less extreme ones. Online learning has been more or less successful for children, with family resources often being a determining factor. But for young children, not going to school presents a different set of problems: online learning is not a good fit for them. Young children need to learn actively, to explore materials, and to play, ideally with other kids.
Increasingly in recent years, young children have had less and less of what early childhood educators would call a beneficial kind of education. Classrooms all over the country have shifted away from play-based learning to more academic teacher-directed instruction. While on the Outer Cape, active, play-based classrooms have been preserved more than in many places around the country, still, classrooms here have felt the pressure to teach more academic skills and give more standardized tests in the early years — pressure that began with the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. This approach is wrongheaded and goes against everything early childhood professionals know about how young children learn best.
This is our moment to take stock of what schools have been doing to young children for the last two decades and ask if we are helping or harming them. It’s our moment to reimagine what optimal education for every young child in the nation could look like.
We need universal, high-quality pre-K for every child. High quality means an experiential, play-based program with skilled teachers who know child development. This is the moment when policy makers need to listen to the voices of early childhood educators who have been crying out for years about the developmentally inappropriate standards being pushed on young kids.
In the wake of this time of no touch, children will need high-touch experiences more than ever. When we send young children back to school there may have to be limitations on some kinds of play, but we must be prepared to provide more holistic classrooms that meet the needs of all children. We can’t go back to an approach to education that has become completely unmoored from what we know about how children learn, and one that has widened the racial schooling gap.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita of education at Lesley University. She lives in Somerville and Truro.