Friday, May 14, 2021

What I Tell Parents About Play-Based Education

Based on my informal and unscientific surveys of early childhood educators, one of the biggest hurdles to fully realizing play-based education is "the parents." Not all the parents, of course, but there are apparently a lot who might like the idea of their children playing, but who have bought into the "fall behind" snake oil. This leads them to apply pressure to us to become "more academic" in defiance of the science behind how young children learn.

I've found that one of the best things one can do for your play-based program is to consciously manage those expectations, right from the start. For us, the process of getting parents on our bandwagon starts with our spring orientation.

I use this opportunity to tell the assembled parents that I will not be teaching their children literacy, although they will be laying the foundations for literacy through their play, their dramatic play in particular; every time we read to them or tell them stories, or when they tell stories to us; each time they get excited and say, "Hey that's my letter!" or "That's your letter!" I won't be teaching them, but they'll be doing exactly what they need to do to read when their brains are ready.

I tell them that I will not be teaching their children math, although they will be practicing their math skills every time they count something out, put things in order, arrange things in groups, worked a puzzle, make or identify a pattern.

I tell them I am particularly uninterested in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills so they would be ready for those "jobs of tomorrow," although again, through their play they will be engaged in teaching these things to themselves. When one studies children at play, it's impossible to not see them as scientists or engineers, asking and answering their own questions, engaging in experiments, figuring out fundamental truths about our world and the other people. 

I tell these parents that I'm singularly uninterested in vocational training. The proper career aspiration for a preschooler is princess or superhero. The jobs for which their children will be applying two decades from now do not yet exist and anyone who tells you they can predict the employment landscape that far into the future is blowing smoke. The jobs my 24-year-old daughter is considering did not exist when she was in preschool. The careers my high school counselors suggested that I pursue would have left me unemployable today. But more importantly, we don't educate our children so that they can take their role in the economy, but rather so that they can perform their role as citizens.

We then talk a lot about "community" at our parent meeting. In fact, nearly everyone who speaks finds that word in their mouth, not because it's part of a coordinated effort, but because it is the real foundation of what we do at our school. We're a cooperative which means that we are owned and operated by the parents who enroll their children and these parents will attend school with their children, serving as assistant teachers. We are not just a community of children, but in a real sense, on a day-to-day basis, a community of families, assembled together around the common goal of supporting our children as they learn the foundational skills of citizenship.

At it's most basic, this means that we strive to form a community in which our children can practice living in a world with other people, learning how to get their own needs met while also leaving space for others to meet theirs. Nothing is more important, not just for individuals, but for our larger society. A good citizen is someone who thinks critically, who thinks for herself; a good citizen is someone who asks a lot of questions and who questions authority; a good citizen knows that it is not just their right, but their responsibility, to speak their mind, even when others disagree; a good citizen likewise knows that they must listen, especially when they disagree; a good citizen knows that they contribute to society in ways far more vital and varied than as a worker bee. It is from citizens with these traits that strong communities, strong democracies, are made.

I tell our assembled parent community that their children will be learning these things as they play together, creating their own community, and that it wouldn't always be pretty. Their children will come home covered in water, mud, paint, snot, and even upon occasion, blood. Their children will find themselves embroiled in conflict. They will be learning through joy, yes, but also tears. They will, as they must, mix it up with the other children, sort things out, make agreements, and help one another. They will teach themselves to be self-motivated, to work well with others, and begin to understand the importance of being personable, all of which are, not accidentally, the most important "vocational" skills of all.

I tell the assembled adults that our job is not to teach them anything, but rather to love and support them as they perform their inquiries, test their theories, and figure out what works for them and what doesn't. We're not there to push or command or mold, but rather to create a safe space in which the children can play, together, in the context of their community.

It takes a village to raise a child and this is where it starts.


If you're interested in learning more about creating a learning "village" that parents will wholeheartedly support, I've developed this 6-part e-course in which I've included everything I know about Partnering With Parents. It takes a village to raise a child. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. How would it be to have parents show up as allies? (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups.

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