Playtime – Not Early Academics – Puts Kids Ahead

For the nation to produce great thinkers like Thomas Edison, “We need to preserve play,” said Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., an educator and psychologist in the area of multiple intelligences. “Preserving innovation is not just good for children, but for society as a whole.”

Interviewed by phone recently, Armstrong said the current emphasis on early student achievement has displaced a lot of developmentally appropriate activities, like dress-up, clay and puppets. “They’re actually important to being able to relate to each other,” he said.

According to Armstrong, there is a critical period when play lays a cognitive foundation for later academic work. “Somehow, the academic side of the education world feels the earlier (children are) involved in academics, the better they will be.” A frequent speaker, Armstrong is the author of 14 books, including The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice.

“A child learns with hands before he learns with the mind,” said Susan Seldomridge, who along with Sue Hoffman co-directs  High Point in the Springs Montessori Preschool in Colorado Springs, CO. “If you show a child the numeral three, but they haven’t seen three blocks, they have no idea what it means.”

In addition to other materials that spark the imagination, students have daily access to Play Doh. They can choose to work with it during “free time,” a choice both women approve of. That’s because Play Doh, or play dough, reinforces concrete learning, Seldomridge said. “And concrete comes before abstract.”

How does pounding a zillion dough balls into pretend lollipops help create the next generation of geniuses? As children work with play dough they are constantly changing their thinking, using their imagination, Seldomridge said. “It helps the child make choices. There’s no right or wrong.”

Such play leads to problem solving skills, skills that Armstrong believes create innovation. “Play is transformative,” he said. “(Its) seeds bloom in the work of accomplished individuals.” By stressing academic learning, he said that teachers are forcing children to do things in a parrot-like fashion.

Creative play is good for other things, too, Seldomridge said. Working with play dough strengthens hands and fingers for writing. It can also be used to build vocabulary when the parent or teacher models words, like “squeezing,” “pulling,” “folding,” and “poking.” The child can experiment with that, she said.  “Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to make a worm,’ it’s better to leave it open-ended.”

When children play side by side it teaches them social skills, like sharing. Seldomridge said children can show a friend what they’ve made and take pride in their work.

An early emphasis on academics doesn’t put children that much further ahead, Armstrong said. In fact, “(It) deprives children of social, emotional, and cognitive development they will need.” He cited Head Start as an example: “(Children) show initial gains, but by third or fourth grades those differences wash out and are not significant.”

He doesn’t see the situation turning around anytime soon. In fact, he sees it getting worse. “When national tests happen, you’ll see a lot of emphasis on preparing for these tests, the earlier the better, even pre-K programs.”

Armstrong does see hope in schools that are using “multiple intelligences,” such as Montessori and Waldorf. Developed in the early 1900s by the Italian educator Maria Montessori, the Montessori Method is hands-on. “It uses as many senses as possible,” said Seldomridge. Waldorf schools were created in the early 1900s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and use an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes imagination.

“We’ve got to get back to a way of looking at children as whole individuals,” said Armstrong. As far as he’s concerned, their future depends on it.  FFG

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