Monday, May 09, 2011

I Just Need To Play With Them

Last week as I sat down to lunch with 8 of our 9 Pre-K children (older 4 and 5-year-olds), I asked if anyone was missing from class. Some of them immediately started counting the people around the table. Others seemed to be studying the faces, playing a kind of memory game within themselves to determine which friend was missing. A couple launched into a trail and error method of calling out the names of the people who ought to be there, hunting for the one who wasn't. There was discussion around and across the table, a sharing of information, speculation, and data, a discussion of strategy, until it was determined by consensus that Orlando wasn't there. 

So how many are here today? They all started counting at once, the volume rose rapidly, then without any intervention by adults the sound fell again as each boy took a turn counting. Some ended with 8 others with 9. There were re-counts, which resulted in the same discrepancy, until Isak noticed that some of the kids were including Teacher Tom in the count, while others were only counting children. A debate erupted over whether or not Teacher Tom should be included, until they finally came to the agreement that there were 8 kids, but if you included Teacher Tom it was 9.

And Orlando was still missing; he was traveling with his family.

A reader recently wrote asking about how, in a play-based curriculum, the children in Woodland Park's Pre-3 class learn to count, recite their A-B-C's, and other "conventional things."

I know parents worry about these things, especially with this insane "Tiger Mom" talk that has recently been injected into an already emotional conversation. Let me assure you right here that the only children who are genuinely at risk for not acquiring literacy and basic math skills are those whose parents lack them. I'm sure there are isolated examples of the contrary, but by far the number one determinate for actual illiteracy or mathematical illiteracy are illiterate parents. Everyone else always learns these "conventional things" almost in spite of what we do as teachers. And there is no correlation between learning these things early and future academic attainment. 

None. Zip. Forget about it.

I tell the parents when they register at Woodland Park that "we never bring letters or numbers into the classroom, except as they naturally occur in the world." By that I mean, we have books, we wear name tags, there are labels on things, and useful signs, but there is no drilling or "teaching" about literacy or numeracy; no games specifically designed to learn letters, sight words, or counting. For one thing, Pre-3's are generally thought to be developmentally too young to have to worry about such things. For another, there's no rush.

Letters and numbers are abstractions from the real world: they represent something real, but they are not real and are therefore too artificial for the concrete brains of most young children to really comprehend. I could, of course drill them to memorize their ABC's but that's not the same as learning them. I'd much prefer to work with young children on language development, which is something for which they are genetically programmed. And there's no better way to do that than by having lots of conversations with them on a variety of topics, which is simply fun. I like to toss in new words when appropriate to expand vocabulary, practice silly rhyming, and encourage them to tell me stories -- anything to get them using their language "muscle." I've never met a child who did not enjoy this because it is simply what the human animal is designed to do at this age. It is play. That said, I've never taught a Pre-3 who didn't come in already knowing the alphabet song, which is a fun way to at least learn what to call the letters, even if it may take a few more years to really understand what letters are and what they do. They learned this song by playing with their parents.

As far as counting goes, I don't expect the Pre-3's to make it much farther than 10, although many can, but consistently identifying numbers doesn't typically start to happen until around 4. Again, however, I'm not worried about it. It always happens as they need to know it to be able to communicate about and understand the things they want to do as part of their play. Instead of drilling, we again focus on things that Pre-3's are designed to learn like sorting and patterning, which after all, is all math really is no matter how far you go in the field. When a child fills one basket with blue buttons and one with yellow, or when they make a basic A-B-A-B stripe pattern on a tiger they're drawing, that's "real" math as opposed to the digits, which are an abstraction and won't make much sense to them until they get older. 

As they get older, they naturally start working on one-to-one correspondence, which is what children demonstrate when they, say, count beans or pennies. When young children play board games, they are matching, taking turns, counting, making patterns, all of which are "conventional things." Yes, you can drill a young child to memorize numbers, just as you can letters, but that isn't the same as comprehending what they mean. The meaning has to come first -- the numbers are just a way to communicate about the "real" thing. 

I've been teaching preschoolers for well over a decade employing nothing but play as our curriculum. Not play "with a purpose," but simply creating an environment in which children play according to their passions and interests. They all head off to kindergarden either reading or right on the verge of reading, which is right where kindergarden teachers around here expect them to be. They all have a solid understanding of what numbers mean and can even, as our Pre-K class did last week, carry on a meaningful, sophisticated conversation about mathematical concepts. These are things that naturally emerge from play. 

I don't need to "teach" them. I just need to play with them.

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Anonymous said...

Totally agree with the non structered and non formal learning of literacy and maths....if a childs world is literacy rich they will ahve all the tools they need to read when they are ready and maths is far easier to understand if a child is given the actual activities that involve maths language without written equations.....I so love your philosophy Teacher Tom xx

Alison @ Educational Creations said...

What a refreshing post! I must remember many of this when homeschooling my tot ..

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Good for you for speaking up for play as opposed to teaching concepts. Children seem to learn so much holistically, and almost by osmosis - when surrounded by books, appropriate play materials, and adults who dialogue meaningfully with them. We can scaffold for children by providing them with information and tools based on their interests.

And of course we need to allow children to play because this is what they need to be doing in their preschool years - when else will they get to play?

Aleacia said...

Thank you thank you for this post!
Before my girls were born, my husband and I decided we would homeschool our children.
When my oldest was born I had everything ready to begin, flashcards, workbooks, videos, you name it I had it!
Everyday we drilled drilled drilled
I even started reading her chapter books without pictures at bedtime.

I will never forget the night everything changed.
I was reading Roald Dahl's Matilda and came to a part where Matilda was asking the librarian what a word meant because she didn't understand it.
I started thinking, this girl is supposed to be super smart well beyond her years, she's reading adult novels at age 5 for goodness sake!
Then it hit me, why teach my kids to read words they aren't ready to comprehend...

I got straight to work reading up on Unschooling. I even found out that a friend of mine (with a Masters in Engineering) didn't start reading until age 10. Obviously not knowing how to read as a preschooler didn't affect her getting a college degree.

Now I read read read picture books all day long, if one of the girls asks about a letter or word I simply answer and wait for the next question. There are no more flashcards, worksheets, videos or drilling of the abc's.
We play with patterns, sorting, matching, playing 'store' and 'restaurant'. Counting and number recognition IS happening right here in my house!

A lot of people think I'm crazy for not forcing numbers/letters on my children but I know they are learning just fine and I'm not worried about them one bit :)

I'm a believer of learning through play and it's nice to know I'm not the only one!

(Sorry for the novel!)

Floor Pie said...

I know lots of parents worry that play-based/emergent curriculum somehow puts kids at a disadvantage for kindergarten. It's not true, of course, but the notion persists.

So I'll just add that my son (not a graduate of Woodland Park, but another co-op preschool with a similar philosophy) went on to blow the lid off those standardized tests they have to take. Never saw a flash card in his life. Spent just about every minute of preschool building with blocks. But he consistently tests in the top 1%. That was never a parenting goal of just happened. Somehow, all that block-building didn't hold him back.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Teacher Tom!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Oh, by the way.
Yhank you for the wonderful photos illustrating children learning through play!

R. Jackson said...

I work at a Reggio Emelia inspired school who's philosophy is based on valuing the children as collaborators in their own learning. We know the children are learning through play and put our trust in them as we use an emergent curriculum to flesh out our planning sheets. However we always seem to need to prove that the children are learning. We cannot simply put down "scissors and magazines" on our planning sheet, we have to follow that up with learning domains and areas of development addressed: hand eye coordination, fine motor skills, manipulating, designing, etc. We are surrounded by a society that is pressured to leave no child behind, be research based, have evidence, everything short of stamping bar codes on our children's foreheads. Boy, wouldn't it be great if we stopped worrying about tomorrow and just enjoy today? Let the children guide us, get on the floor, have some fun. The kids ARE alright!

pamlovesbooks said...

interesting concept i'm intrigued. kind of like unschooling,eh?

suenevin said...

Great Post

Gina said...

You put into words what I have been trying (ineffectively) to explain for years!

I teach threes, and this year alone I have had three sets of parents ask me why I don't tell them what letters their kid is learning, or how high he/she can count to?

Each time I go into the "learning through play" argument, but I still feel as though I'm letting them down.
I know in my heart that what I do is developmentally appropriate, and that the children ARE learning, but I have never been able to effectively explain why until now.

So thanks do great things, and the children are lucky to have you as a teacher.

FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist said...

Great post. I'm so glad that our daycare just lets the kids play.

Having said that -- my 2.5yo son can identify all his numbers and a few letters, and can point at the words on a page and demand "say the story, mommy!". He started to ask about letters and numbers on signs and license plates before he was two, so we went with it. We count everything because it's fun for him; same for pointing out letters (he's especially fond of the ones that spell his name). I've heard similar stories from other parents, so I don't think my boy is particularly exceptional.

This isn't drilling, it's play, using things he sees around him every day, and responding to his interest. So while I agree that pre-three "academics" are pointless, I can't entirely dismiss introducing letters and numbers at a young age.