OPINION: Playtime, a learning necessity

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I admit it, I was the one. When my daughter was 2 years old, I had her memorize the ABC song. Any time we were in the car, she would practice writing skills with a toddler app on my phone. When we were at the dinner table, I would impress family members with how well we could play hangman. She was 3.

I don’t know when that started or why, but it seemed to be the norm. I would meet other moms at the park barking orders at their preschoolers to perfect their form on the monkey bars or bragging about how many extra curricular activities their kids were enrolled in.

It is this perpetual race to Mars and our children are in the cockpit at age 2.

Mark Barnett, professor in psychological sciences, taught the Psychology of Childhood and Adolescence class I took and has worked extensively in the area of child and adolescent psychology.

One of the topics he mentioned over and over again during class was how much children need to play, not with learning tablets and phone apps, but with cardboard boxes and dirt.

Are we putting too much pressure on our kids to perform early on? Are we scheduling our children’s lives with so much to learn so soon that we’re depriving them of just being children?

In the NPR segment What kids need from grown-ups (but aren’t getting),” Erika Christakis, an American early childhood educator, said we need get back to basics with children.

“I think boredom can be a friend to the imagination,” Christakis said. “Sometimes when kids appear to be bored, actually they haven’t had enough time to engage in something. We quickly whisk it away and move them along to the next thing. And that’s when you say, ‘How can I help the child to look at this in a new way?’ To try something new, to be patient.”

Kindergarten is the new first grade and preschool is the new kindergarten, which is a “real threat to society’s future,” Christakis said.

Virginia Plummer, kindergarten teacher at Northview Elementary in Manhattan, said she agrees the focus has shifted over the years, making kindergarten more like first grade.

“Kindergarten today is definitely focused more on academics,” Plummer said. “When I started my career in 1977, I taught first grade for five years. What I am teaching now is in many ways what I taught first graders then.”

According to William Doyle of the Los Angeles Times, we need to learn from Finland.

In his article “Why Finland has the best schools,” Doyle gives his firsthand perspective on the difference between our elementary schools and Finnish schools.

Finland consistently produces the “highest global test scores in the Western world, as well as a trophy case full of other recent No. 1 global rankings, including most literate nation,” according to Doyle’s article.

Doyle said he learned from his experience as a parent living in Finland that instead of teaching their children academics as early as kindergarten like we do in the U.S., Finnish primary schools allow their students to play until they reach the age of 7. Until then, the children learn primarily from “songs, games and conversations,” Doyle said.

It is “mandatory” for Finnish schoolchildren to take a 15-minute play break for every hour of instruction, and “fresh air, nature and regular physical activity breaks are considered engines of learning,” Doyle said.

Mary DeLuccie, associate professor of family studies and human services and administrator of the Hoeflin Stone House Early Childhood Education Center, said she agrees that play is the cornerstone of childhood development.

“Play also provides children with a solid foundation for later learning by supporting the development of creativity, risk-taking, persistence, autonomy and self-reliance,” DeLuccie said. “But sometimes children are treated as if they should learn only what adults can teach them. We disrespect their natural inclinations to discover knowledge and threaten their ability to direct their own learning.”

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