Have you ever sat and just watched a child play? As in, quietly sat and watched a child really, deeply involved in a world of their own creating? No interfering, no adult input, no interruptions, just a child and their ideas, thoughts, interests, and imagination?

If you haven’t taken this opportunity, I’m going to fill you in on exactly what happens when a child is given time, space, and opportunity to delve into their ideas. It’s called LEARNING. Not the learning that we typically think of when we think of the concept of learning (books, desks, worksheets, teachers dictating) but the deep, brain-connecting learning that occurs for every human when they are simply allowed to PLAY.

As an educator for 24 years in the Early Years Profession, push back against early academics has been a very real battle for me and so many of my colleagues. The belief that young children should be completing work sheets, absorbing numbers and letters in a rote like sequence, and sitting for long periods of time is not only outdated, damaging and developmentally inappropriate for most young children, but there is not a single piece of evidence that backs up that this is how we prepare children for the years ahead. In fact, every piece of evidence points to the exact opposite. That children learn best through following their ideas and interests, and the best way to do this is through providing opportunity and resources to play.

Children learn through moving their bodies. Think back to babyhood, and the very first things that a brand-new human does. They move. And as they move, their brains make connections. And they keep making connection after connection as they discover new things. Movement is SO important in Early Childhood (and beyond!) that if a child has not had the opportunity to move their bodies enough, they will lack the vestibular strength that is required for when they are developmentally ready for traditional, sit-down learning. Let us look into this further. Your vestibular system is essentially your inner core. It supports you and helps you to coordinate balance with movement and with spatial awareness. Your ability to throw and catch a ball, balance on a bike, to sit upright in a chair or to grip a pencil effectively are all signs of vestibular strength. If vestibular strength is poor, then the ability to do these things is minimised. If you have a child who is clumsy, unable to hold their own body weight or generally have poor fine motor or gross motor skills, then they may not have had opportunities to develop their vestibular system to its full potential.

It’s pointless to expect a child with a developing vestibular system to try and do things that their bodies are not ready for. But there are ways in which to build this strength in children so that when the time comes for formal learning (in many children this is 7 years and above) they are strong and ready for it! Climbing, balancing, running, jumping, spinning, dancing, throwing, catching, tipping, pouring, carrying, rolling, skipping. and then smaller body skills, cutting, threading, pinching, rolling, rubbing, gripping, building, and buttoning, tying and zipping clothes. These are all skills that children constantly work on when they are able to play in a safe and supportive environment.

Let’s look at the progression of a child in an Early Years environment that has followed their own path of play before heading off to school. Mason started in childcare at 10 months old. His educators, recognising his need to move his body, gave him lots of opportunity to explore what he was capable of. He was given, care and support when standing up holding onto things and then when he took his first steps. He was given opportunity to manipulate items with large muscles and small muscles. As he grew, his educators continued to recognise his changing needs and provided him with time to explore sand, water, his interests in trucks and balls and things that move (watching things move strengthen eye muscles – children need these for reading and writing later on!) he experimented with painting and drawing (scribbling is important! This is how children make their first steps to develop the hand-eye coordination needed to form letters or create art) and he started to connect with his peers, beginning to develop social skills, language skills, eye contact and empathy. As Mason approached three and then four, he started to become very involved in lots of active play. He moved his body constantly and discovered he could climb trees, swing up to the sky and build really high towers. He could also cut with scissors! Then Mason started to notice letters. There were words on the pages of books that he read with his teachers and parents and words around his setting at kindergarten. At nearly 5 years old, Mason noticed the “M” his teacher wrote when she labelled his work. The “M for Mason” was “his” letter and he started to replicate it. He wrote it in the sand with a stick, he built it out of blocks, he recognised when he saw it in a book and then, he picked up a pencil and wrote it. His educators, of course, noticed this progression and gave Mason plenty of time to follow his learning and lots of resources to do so. By the time Mason was ready for school, he was writing his name and recognising lots of different letters and even numbers around his environment. Not only that, but because he had been encouraged to play and follow his interests, Mason was able to socialise well with other children, he was independent and had self-help skills (boosted by the confidence he had in himself thanks to his wonderful years of playing) He had a strong vestibular system, so was able to sit up straight, grip a pencil, open his lunchbox containers and cut with scissors. Mason went to school not knowing how to read, or write, or add up, but he went to school knowing that he was great at learning new things, and that confidence will give him the ability to continue with his learning journey as he grows up.

Now, not every child is going to follow the same progression of learning that Mason has (and if you are wondering, Mason is a real child, who I sent off to school this year, and he is thriving in his new environment) But, you can see what I’m explaining here. Children, when given the opportunity to follow their own path of learning and given opportunity to play, will develop the skills they need to thrive when formal schooling is introduced later (and the later the better, a curriculum heavy in play is really needed for children right up to 6-7 years of age)

So, how does creating an environment and program look like when giving children these much-needed skills?

-There will be large blocks of time for children to simply move. Lots of outdoor time and areas for large muscle and small muscle play. Sand, water, dirt, bikes, balls, obstacle courses, climbing frames, swings, items to lift and carry.

-There will be opportunities to paint, draw, cut, glue, squeeze, build, thread and manipulate materials, like dough and clay.

-Lots of storytelling, books, songs, music and rhyme. An environment rich in literature and language.

-Value placed on connection with educators and other children. Time for children to investigate these connections. Areas for role play and imaginative play. Props and resources to support this.

-When children begin to show interest in reading/writing/numbers/shapes/colours, educators provide for this BUT, still understand that children learn best within their own play.

-Opportunities to practice self-help skills. Opening lunchboxes, toileting, dressing and taking care of their belongings.

An Early Childhood Environment that does these things, and provides connection, loving care routines, security and safety is giving children the best possible outcomes for their earliest years. This is what high-quality care looks like. This is what school readiness looks like.

Further Reading – https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201505/early-academic-training-produces-long-term-harm

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