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Early Education Panel Calls For More Guided Play in Preschool

By guest blogger Kara Brounstein

A room full of adults learned a lesson in the importance of children's play at a panel discussion Wednesday titled "Today's Skills Start With Early Learning," organized by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the First Five Years Fund.

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University who specializes in early learning, Cheri Sterman, the education director at Crayola Inc., and John Holland, a National Board-certified Head Start teacher in Richmond, Va., talked about elements of a high-quality early-childhood education.

Hirsch-Pasek lamented what she calls the "filling the gap" solution to the nation's lackluster student achievement and low graduation rates, essentially cramming more content into the early grades. Educators should not "dump dump dump, more math, more [vocabulary]," she said. Children are not empty vessels when they enter school, and they only spend 20 percent of their waking time in school.  The academic supports and interventions, then, should be provided early, well before the achievement gap begins to widen, Hirsh-Pasek said.

"We talk a lot about closing the gap," she said, "and then we work when the kids are so [late in their academic development] that it's hard to change those trajectories."

The panelists called for more guided play in early-childhood classrooms—where the adult sets up the environment or toy in an interesting way, and then within that context, the child directs what goes on. Sterman spoke to the importance of play by describing it as children's desire to make sense of the world.

"Think of it as the beautiful intersection between what a child knows and is trying to figure out," she said.

Holland was able to shed light on this through an experience with Isaac, a former preschool student who had difficulty with learning to write his name, an early predictor of literacy. Isaac could not write the letter S in spite of Holland's attempts to teach him using methods he learned in teacher preparation courses. Noticing Isaac playing with toy cars in the block area and making race-car sounds, Holland figured out that he could get Isaac to understand the letter S by pretending the pen was a toy car and emulating Isaac's sound effects as the pen rounded the curves of the letter—as a car would circle the curves on his toy road.

"By the end of the year, he was writing his first and last name, copying words from Post-It notes onto his paper," Holland said. "That was what he needed."

The panelists emphasized the importance of children being actively engaged in their learning through play so that they understand how to get along with others, problem-solve and think critically, and ultimately live successful lives.

As Holland stated, acquiring skills like the four C's is "not just about academics, it's about how we reach our potential as humanity."

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