Play, often associated with superhero capes, colored blocks, and sticky Play-Doh, can be a useful tool to assess young children's knowledge even in this high-stakes education environment.
Moreover, it's a cheap one: All educators have to do is sit back and observe.
"Giving a child space and materials and watching how they use them in their play ... can be very informative," said Barbara A. Willer, the deputy executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children in an interview with me today. Watching quietly "helps teachers grasp what children understand and what concepts they've learned."
The best preschool teachers utilize play as a strategy to impart and determine knowledge, she said, but all too often it is an underused resource or—gasp—perceived as an inconsequential activity. Willer went so far as to say that play is "under attack."
In reality, play is an important way for children to process what they're learning and a means to develop both social and emotional connections, she said.
Her organization has long sought to bring attention to the issue of play, doing copious research into ways it is used effectively.
It's surprising to learn just how complicated play is: There's physical play, exploratory play, imaginative play.
The best type "is open-ended and child-directed," Willer said.
"Play and academics are not necessarily mutually exclusive," she added. "In fact, they support one another. Play is a very important strategy for achieving content."
To see more of NAEYC's research into play, go here.