Play is the thing.
This little adaptation of the old Shakespeare quote from Hamlet—“…the play’s the thing/wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”—has been popping up in my mind for months now, ever since my Minneapolis-based organization, ACT for Education, was lucky enough to receive a mini-grant from Defending the Early Years.
In Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet decides to use the structure of a play, through some carefully placed lines, to prove that his uncle, King Claudius, murdered his father. Can we, as co-defenders of the early years, steal Hamlet’s idea, and modify it a bit? Can we use play itself to “catch the conscience” of those who create and implement current education policy, and remind them that children, and especially young children, learn best through play?
That was the hope of ACT for Education when, with the help of our DEY grant, we planned a community event around the idea that “early play=later academic success.” While I initiated the DEY grant application, I must say that my friend and fellow play advocate Kori Hennessey planned most of the actual event. She was instrumental in naming our event, so that it would clearly connect play to academic success, and in inviting an excellent panel of early childhood and primary teachers to share their wisdom and experience about the importance of play.
We held the event at a neighborhood community center and spread the word through a flyer, word of mouth, and Facebook. We had four teachers on our panel—three preschool and one early primary—and we also had a local parent and play expert, Seniz Yargici Lennes, who made the night interactive by offering games and play activities for all the grown-ups, while the children were in another room doing their own active play.
Many people who came seemed to really appreciate being able to play, throughgames we did and the homemade playdough Kori made and set out on every table. Participants also enjoyed the way one of our panelists demonstrated the value of an inquiry and discovery-based science environment for young children by having lots of natural materials on a table. While she outlined early child standards, two of Kori’s children played with the rocks, pine cones, and other items, oblivious to the learning objectives they were meeting.
For many of us, this hands-on display showed that children naturally learn while they are playing. This lesson complimented the work of another panelist, who described the changes she was seeing in the early childhood classrooms she works in, where explicit learning targets are being tacked up on every wall and written in to every teacher’s daily objectives.
The overt insistence on meeting certain targets or goals was shown to be impeding what the teachers, and many parents in the room, felt was best: classrooms full of noisy, messy, discovery-based play that was developmentally appropriate.
We were able to attract about 20 people to our evening event, which was less than we had hoped, but something wonderful and unexpected happened that drew many more people to our cause. Just before our event, I created an ACT for Education online petition calling for Thirty Minutes of Recess for Every Child (pre-K-6) in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and it was as popular as recess itself! In just 24 hours, the petition had over 400 signatures; when we delivered it to the Minneapolis school board on October 14, it had almost 800 signatures. This is significant, because, while some students in the district have one hour, total, for lunch and recess, many have a half an hour for both.
With the momentum of the petition behind us, we have a diverse and organized group of parents and community members ready to help push for a recess-based policy change in Minneapolis. Also, because of the resources we pulled together for our “early play” event, we have been able to get people talking about what a developmentally appropriate early childhood education setting should look like.
Now, we are planning a larger play-based learning event for 2015. Hopefully, by then, we will have an assurance from the Minneapolis Public Schools that every child, in every school, will have a guaranteed minimum of thirty minutes of recess every day. Together, I think we can show our policymakers that play—guided but unstructured—is the thing our children need as they carve their own paths forward.
---Reminder from DEY - our Action Mini Grants are still available - now is a great to to apply for events in the new year! Find more information and the application in our Early Childhood Activist Tool Kit.