Once in a while I hear people ask, “Oh, are the children just playing now?” implying that they aren’t doing anything important. My answer is usually a simple “yes” because it’s a busy time in a busy day in an equally busy week. I don’t take the time to elaborate and explain how carefully each game and each toy is selected. I don’t take the time to go over how I set up each center for maximum learning for our particular age group. If I could, I would take that person by the hand, lead them to each child and explain the wonderful learning going on in that time of “just play”.
Stephanie is painting her third painting in 20 minutes. Sometimes her pictures look like people or flowers or birds; sometimes they are simply wild sweeps of color. She always takes lots of paintings home at night because she paints for the sheer joy of spreading colors on paper. She is learning fine motor control, how to mix and blend colors, and the fun of creative expression.
Jamey is feeling sad today because she had to get up too soon and she forgot her blanket. After rocking with Ms. Pat for a few minutes, she decides she’d like to help feed the birds. She puts fresh water in their cage and new food in their dish while the teacher watches. She is learning to be responsible for her pets, and also that sadness can go away if you get involved in something worthwhile.
Alex is building a house for an owl using blocks. The stuffed toy owl peeks out of the house as Alex “problem solves” to make the blocks connect across the top. He uses the trial and error method, finally making a roof that will stay on, thus keeping his owl dry. Ms. Pat takes his picture when the construction is complete. He is learning spatial relationships, problem solving, persistence and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Olivia is making a card for her mother. She can write MOM and OLIVIA, but she asks Ms. Becky to help her with I LOVE YOU. Ms. Becky writes the words and Olivia copies them on the card, then draws a row of flowers beneath. She is learning to write her letters and to turn those letters into meaningful words. She is also learning how good it feels to give something that you have made yourself.
Cara sees Olivia’s card and wants to make one too. She writes Dear Mom, I love you, Cara, and draws a duck through the middle. None of her letters are legible and the duck looks like a rat, but she is 3 and just learning to control a pencil. No one asks, “What is it?” Instead Ms. Ann praises the beautiful colors and the hard work she put into it. Cara is extremely proud of her card. Her mother will see it and know the love and effort behind it. She is learning fine-motor skills and also the joy of giving.
Joe and Markie play a memory game where they have to match pictures by remembering where the similar one is (think of Concentration). They have an argument and go to Ms. Ann to settle it. Ms. Ann helps each boy explain the problem as he sees it. Then they try to agree on a way to solve their difficulty. They are learning cooperative problem-solving. They are also learning that they can be independent and solve things themselves without needing an adult for a referee.
Lauren, Krista, Mitchell and Sarah are in the dramatic play area. This week there is a pizza parlor set up. They write down orders, make pizzas, deliver the pizzas and collect money. They are learning to work cooperatively, to verbalize their ideas and feelings, to use writing in a meaningful way and to use money for exchanging goods. They are also using their imaginations in a lively, satisfying way.
Geno is playing in the water table, measuring with cups, spoons and beakers. He splashes the peppermint scented water out, but wipes it up with the available towel when reminded. He is learning that water has weight, it flows downhill, can be measured and poured, and must be cleaned up. He is learning that water on his skin feels cool (evaporation), that peppermint smells good, and that water, when flung through the air, will always come down near his teacher.
In all of these scenes from one morning’s preschool, the children were playing, yet learning important lessons about themselves, about relating and communicating with others, and about the world around them. Yes, they are “just playing”- and what a magical thing it is!
By Pat Gilkerson, Preschool Teacher
Presentation Childhood Learning Center
An Article for the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Belltower