Recently I was asked to give a talk on play-based learning to a group of interested parents and teachers. Since this is a topic near and dear to my heart, I agreed immediately…it’s a subject I could talk about for days! It was such a great experience- we held the meeting in my classroom, and after my presentation I pulled in my sensory table for a demonstration and ended up in an informal powwow with the group for a whole additional hour, on my knees in front of a table of dyed beans, waxing poetic about the beauty of learning the way children were meant to.
One of the big parts of the presentation was showing photos of the children in my classroom engaged in various activities- I wanted people to see what play-based learning actually looks like. One of my favorite photos to talk about is of one of my two-year-olds at the art table on the first day of school.
The initial invitation was very simple- a large white sheet of paper, several colors of paint in shallow bowls, and some cardboard tubes. My student figured out pretty quickly that she could use the end of the paper towel roll as a stamp, dipping it into the paint and then blotting it onto the white paper to create circles. I watched her make this discovery independently, excitement lighting up her face as she exclaimed excitedly about the circles and the different colors.
Suddenly, the little girl abandoned her station and walked across the room to our sensory table. She grabbed a clear plastic mason jar and a wooden egg cup and raced purposefully back to the art table. She carefully flipped each object over and dipped the round openings into the paint and then stamped them on the paper, creating more circles of different sizes. “Circle!” she proclaimed. “Big! Small! Red!” I continued to watch her, this tiny, determined person, as she evaluated different objects in our environment for their circle-making potential. In the picture, you can see her evaluating one of our paint bowls, about to flip it over so she could use it to make her biggest circles yet. You can also see the yellow egg cup in one of her hands and the clear plastic jar on the table.
I learned so much about this little girl just by observing her at play. Aside from the obvious color and shape knowledge, comparative vocabulary, and early math skills I witnessed, I also saw evidence of higher problem solving skills, including the ability to mentally rotate objects, which is a skill thought to be related to general intelligence. I also learned a lot about her personality- she showed sustained attention, persistence, and ingenuity that she has displayed many times since this day, especially when she is focused on a particular concept or activity.
Imagine if I had not given this child the freedom to incorporate other materials into her art experience as she saw fit. If I had extinguished that fire by not allowing her the autonomy to develop her own project. Sure, the dyed wooden egg cup wasn’t my favorite choice for dipping in paint (it now has a permanently green rim), but she was so deep into the process that I felt it was important to not interrupt. Granted, there are rules in place in my classroom to protect its occupants and the physical environment, but as long as children aren’t hurting selves, others, or property, I do allow them the freedom to be in charge of their own play experiences. Who am I to dictate how a child learns and interacts with his/her environment? My job is to guide, not dictate; facilitate, not dominate. Only then will the children truly show you what they are capable of!