Standing at the creek’s edge, my son carefully drops his wooden boat into the water. He follows his classmates along the banks, guiding their boats with the attached knitted string, a small parade of colorful sails and bright rubber boots.
The children occasionally look behind them and smile proudly at their parents.
It’s Regatta Day at my son’s preschool, and the teachers, parents and children have hiked into the woods behind the school to launch the little boats. It’s a special day to celebrate the children’s weeks of hard work on this project.
They’ve built the boats out of pieces of wood. They’ve knitted the boat’s string. They’ve painted and sewed the sails.
They’ve learned about creating and following patterns, about using patience and self-regulation to persevere through mistakes and challenges, about understanding numbers through counting and sequencing, about asking for help when assistance is needed. They’ve strengthened their control over their little hands and fingers.
All without a work sheet, a flashcard or a vocabulary lesson at a tiny desk. If you ask my son what he did at school on any given day, he will say, “Play.”
And he is right. He plays and does hands-on activities all day, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t engaged in serious learning. I chose a school for him that understands that play — as Fred Rogers famously said — is “the work of childhood.” Children learn by running, building, imagining, climbing, storytelling, exploring, pretending and singing. It’s how they build the foundation for the academic skills that are so critical later on.
Increasingly, as a society, we are in danger of forgetting that the chance to engage in unscripted, playful learning is one of the primary things that young children deserve from adults, as early childhood educator Erika Christakis writes in “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.” “Play is the foundational building block of human cognition, emotional health, and social behavior,” Christakis writes. “Play improves memory and helps children learn mathematical problems in their heads, take turns, regulate their impulses, and speak with greater complexity.”
Researchers have documented…