Director’s Column: Today’s Play is Tomorrow’s Pursuit

By Jennifer Winters, Director

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.—Albert Einstein

Play is like nothing else in life, especially for young children. It brings alive their creativity and passion, and it leads them to learn. In the magical world of play, children act out what is on their minds; they practice life, as they know it, on their own terms. Their play can be based on real events (a new baby in the family), or it can be strictly fantasy (fairies and dragons) or some combination of the two (a castle has to be built for the new baby to save her from the dragon, but remember that we need a changing table). In play, children make their own rules and the rules change depending upon many factors, none of which necessarily makes sense from the adult perspective.

A play-based, child-centered program, like Bing, is fundamental to fostering creativity and a passion for discovery and curiosity that will last a lifetime. Let’s examine the essential components of such a program:

First, a pedagogy that truly honors the child is essential. Honoring children enables them to make their own choices, ask questions and be supported in finding the answers with thoughtful teachers as well as with their peers. Best teaching practices should support divergent thinking (the ability to be fluent, flexible, original and able to elaborate), which is key to inspiring and fueling creativity (Fox and Schirrmacher, 2012). Teachers who skillfully listen to children as they share and articulate their ideas will guide them toward innovative, collaborative and creative problem solving in their social relationships, use of materials and overall development. Teachers’ support will also help children understand that their peers may have solutions to challenges and good ideas for new ways to play.

Second, it is important to provide a flexible, accepting and hands-on environment designed specifically for young children that offers appropriate challenges to guide their exploration (cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically). The physical environment needs enough space for a child to comfortably engage in small group, large group or solitary play. Optimal environments include safe and accessible outdoor areas since learning takes place both indoors and out.

Thoughtfully arranged spaces help children feel secure, enabling them to make their own choices and do what they want, how they want it, and with whom they want. Teachers and parents have a responsibility to provide respect, understanding and challenges that fully support children’s development and enable them to express their ideas and build upon them over time. Children thrive in environments that offer opportunities for repeated experience in order to become masters of play; and masters of play often become tomorrow’s innovators.

Third, “the gift of time” refers to giving children a large amount of uninterrupted time to play and explore. This allows the child to make choices, whether on their own, with peers or with a teacher. Time is essential in nurturing every aspect of a child’s development. In our modern world, we are often in a hurry and there never seems to be enough time. Giving children the gift of time enables them to invest in learning more thoroughly, and develop the ability to approach learning both passionately and creatively.

Fourth, the use of basic, open-ended materials (blocks, clay, paint, sand and water) fosters creative, open and expansive play opportunities. These basic materials, available every day, are essential to fueling the imaginations and creative spirits of young children. Other important elements include: high-quality musical instruments, woodworking materials, quality children’s literature, natural objects to examine (such as rocks, seeds, shells, fabrics and tree trunks), dress-up clothing and other dramatic play props, baby dolls, buckets, measuring cups, funnels, pulleys, ropes and additional art materials (brushes, pencils, crayons, different types of paper and found materials). These are all examples of basic, open-ended elements put into the classroom environment to support the growth and development of the young child and to promote creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills.

Finally, the most important aspect in supporting a young child’s creativity and passion for learning is having teachers who possess not only an enthusiasm for teaching, but also a deep respect for the child. The respectful teacher supports each child and trusts that the child has a good reason for doing what he does. This translates to teachers who listen to the child and who can pick up on the child’s needs, interests and feelings. These teachers understand that if a child has a strong feeling there must be a compelling reason for it and they take the time to help the child communicate those feelings. Teachers who ask both open-ended and thought-provoking questions will help the child to grow and develop their own analytical thinking and perspective-taking abilities. In turn, such exchanges help the child to reflect on his own understanding and thinking.

The following anecdotes highlight how children develop as problem solvers and creative thinkers. In the first anecdote, a 4 1/2-year-old girl demonstrates her ability to work with basic, open-ended materials as well as with her peers to engage in complex problem solving and creative thinking. She also exhibits an understanding of cause and effect as she makes and assigns rules.

A group of children were saying that they thought another group of children, who were pretending to be monsters, were too scary. Christine made pretend soup for the frightened group and said, “Here, have this food that makes you not afraid of anything! Then you won’t be scared of them.” When the game changed and the monster group was telling the frightened group that there was a flood and their house was getting wet, Christine made a new soup that made the drinker waterproof. The game changed a third time: The house was a spaceship and the monster group said it had taken off without the first group of children. Christine then made them “soup to help you fly,” so they could catch up with the spaceship.

In a second anecdote, it is clear that the child has some understanding about the elements of cooking. He acts out something that he has seen or even participated in at home. He is deeply engaged and motivated as he problem-solves with the open-ended materials and tests out his ideas. The classroom set-up serves as both an invitation and a provocation to let the child expand his creativity.

Three-year-old Jamie approached a table (complete with checkered tablecloth) set up with a variety of cooking utensils (bowls filled with fluffy soap bubbles, whisks, spoons, funnels and wooden eggs). He carefully scanned the array of materials as he quietly hummed to himself. He filled bowls with soapy water, pretended to crack several eggs and whisked the soapsuds until the bowl was overflowing. The environment around him was filled with children working at the woodworking table, others building with large hollow blocks and several children easel painting. Jamie was so involved in his play it seemed as if there was nothing else going on around him. He remained immersed in his play for a full 20 minutes before Amanda approached him and asked him if he wanted to play. Jamie paused in his action for a moment, as if to consider whether to continue or to join his friend. He then said, “I will when I am done making my (he paused for a moment as if he were really thinking about what he was creating) soup.” He continued to stir the soup. Then slowly and carefully, so as not to spill a drop, he lifted the spoon up close to his mouth, pretending to blow on it to cool it down and then taking a pretend sip. Satisfied that the soup was done, he laid the spoon down, wiped his hands on his shirt and proceeded to join his friend for a train ride.

Harvard educator and author Tony Wagner in his new book Creating Innovators (2012) talks about play, passion and purpose and concludes that, “in order for children to grow creatively and be able to be the next innovators, they need to play today to develop a sense of purpose which will in turn become passion in the future.” As young children move into a more formal education system, they will face new challenges and learning opportunities. The skills they have learned through a play-based nursery school experience will provide them with a strong foundation from which to face those challenges and the tools to take advantage of those learning opportunities. “If children are helped toward independence and confidence in themselves, they will be open to new experiences of all kinds, including academic learning, and later, when their minds are more mature, they can become not merely good students, but true scholars, able to not only acquire knowledge but to evaluate what they learn and apply it in both personally satisfying and socially useful ways.” (Griffin, 1982)

To support this natural curiosity, love of learning, inherent drive to interact with the world around them and desire to pursue their passions, we are giving children the best start in life that we can through play!