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Play is the Engine of Development

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Play is the Engine of Development

Cindy Heaney

Written by Cindy Heaney for the May 2016 Newsletter

This month, we abandoned our usual monthly staff meeting routine to take in a lecture presented by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a life-long developmental specialist and child advocate, professor emeritus from Lesley University and nationally acclaimed author and expert on a range of early childhood issues.  Her presentation, "Taking Back Childhood: Helping Children Thrive in Challenging Times," was a moving review of current trends in education and society that are narrowing childhood in alarming ways---from the prevalence of testing, testing, testing and  the elimination of recess in our schools to the dominance of screen-time and lack of outside experiences in young people's lives.

At times the conversation turned a bit grim and it was hard to think about the depth and breadth of the problems facing educators and parents who want a different experience for our children. And yet, it was affirming, too, because so much of what Nancy was advocating is tightly woven into the fabric of ITC:

  • At ITC, we embrace play and see it as the catalyst and medium for healthy growth and development
  • We champion childhood as an important and valid time of life on its own merits, not just as a steppingstone to adulthood
  • We encourage a slower pace and less pressure on "performance," offering more time for deep exploration and satisfying, innovative play that engenders "pure, child-centered invention."
  • We work hard to carve out great swaths of time for uninterrupted play with open-ended materials that are proven building-blocks of creativity, problem-solving, persistence, and self-regulation, all capacities for lifelong success in learning
  • We believe in the efficacy of children and that they deserve agency in their own lives
  • We arrange our classroom environments on the notion that learning happens in relationship and in engagement and in motion---that this is how the brain develops, particularly in the first 5 years of life, and we must honor and defend our children's right to experience the world this way
  • We believe that play is at the root of mental health, that children's play often reflects their own experiences, and it is through play that they can learn to cope
  • We provide rich hands-on experiences, avoiding a strictly academic approach that focuses on "the names of things" rather than the underlying concepts that children are naturally curious about
  • We wrestle against current societal trends that demonstrate a "profound misunderstanding of the nature of play" and instead we see play as "the engine of development"

And as we do all of this, we do it with a humbleness that admits we always have more to learn, more to understand, and more to wrestle with.  My "Aha" moment came when Nancy talked about children's developmental milestones, not as stages to leap through, but as opportunities to be milked fully.  I thought about how much we talk about the importance of repetition and deepening of experiences rather than lots and lots of entertaining moments.  Nancy would like that and she would see that we are helping children "milk" each stage of development for all its worth, letting each child lead us forward when ready.

At ITC, we have strong views, but we also know that we're not done yet . And that keeps us a vibrant learning community, through and through!