“To learn a thing in life through doing is much more developing, cultivating, and strengthening than to learn it merely through the verbal communication of ideas.” — Friedrich Froebel, 1895

As an early childhood education specialist, I often talk with both parents and teachers about the critical importance of children’s play. Play, as described by Friedrich Froebel, the “father” of modern kindergarten, is a “biological imperative to discover how things work.” To put it another way, children don’t learn via “lecture.” They only learn through hands-on exploration. It is our job as parents and caregivers to create environments that spark this meaningful and experiential play.

“Play” is essential to healthy child development, Froebel suggested, because the child discovers what she can do by exerting her own power. “Work,” on the other hand, is when a child must follow a prescribed task given by another person. This is an important distinction because children can only learn what they are ready to learn.

Today, we are consumed with getting children “ready” for kindergarten. With new California state standards in education, preschools feel intense pressure to ensure children are prepared for the rigorous demands of kindergarten. Years ago, no one was expected to master the skill of reading until second grade; now parents hire professionals if a child isn’t reading by the end of the kindergarten year.

As a result of this focus on academic skills, children may be learning to read earlier, but some teachers caution that children are also learning to hate reading. What have we sacrificed in the name of “school readiness?” Teachers and parents talk about creating “life-long learners,” and then may unconsciously subvert children’s natural curiosity and active engagement by assigning an adult-created worksheet as homework.

Catching the rain

Froebel emphasized, “The natural world is the infant and young child’s first curriculum, and it can only be learned by direct interaction with things. Learning about the world of things, and their various properties, is a time-consuming and intense process that cannot be hurried.” In a developmentally appropriate classroom, children are happily busy with spontaneous experimentation: with paint, with sand, with music, with the outside world, and with each other. And because every child is on his/her own developmental path, educational environments (and home environments) must be designed to adapt to the growing needs, interests, and abilities of each individual child.

Dr. David Elkind, author of “The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon,” writes, “No authority in the field of child psychology, pediatrics, or child psychiatry advocates the formal instruction, in any domain, of infants and young children. In fact, the weight of solid professional opinion opposes it and advocates providing young children with a rich and stimulating environment that is, at the same time, warm, loving, and supportive of the child’s own learning priorities and pacing.”

Children who are given the opportunity to learn through self-directed play are more capable and eager to acquire skills and knowledge as they grow and develop. Children who are forced into academic exercises that aren’t meaningful to them may begin to dislike school before they even begin.

And there are additional benefits to play-based early learning environments across all developmental domains. Through play, children are given the opportunity to develop motor skills, cognitive and language skills, number and time concepts, spatial understanding, cause and effect, aesthetic and sensory appreciation, and social skills.

In fact, healthy social and emotional development of young children predicts school readiness more than academic knowledge. When children are able to build and sustain friendships, exercise self-control, solve problems, and become self-reliant, they are more likely to thrive in kindergarten.

In high quality preschools, children are given many opportunities to practice social skills and develop empathy, kindness, generosity, and compassion towards others. These social skills cannot be explicitly taught; neither parents nor teachers can force a child to be kind or compassionate, or generous. Through unstructured play interactions, however, children naturally build connections with one another, learn to express and manage strong emotions, and learn to resolve conflicts in a variety of complex situations.

Lessons learned through play should not be the sole domain of preschool. These important experiences should continue throughout a child’s formative education. Hands-on exploration might later be referred to as “project-based learning,” a pedagogical method gaining popularity in American schools with the new Common Core standards. When children are actively engaged in inquiry-based learning, the benefits are clear. Children develop critical thinking skills, the ability to collaborate, opportunity for creativity and imagination, and complex problem solving skills–all the things we work on every day in quality early learning environments.

Heidi Emberling, MA, is an early childhood educator and child development specialist at Parents Place on the Peninsula.