ALL Children Need Play

Three children sit on a rug playing together with building blocks

by Jim St. Clair

Jim St. Clair is a former kindergarten teacher in New York and Boston.  He is a member of Defending the Early Years’ National Advisory Board.

While reading the sports page recently, I was struck by a quote from Boston Celtic star Jaylen Brown. He had just finished reading a book (Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes) and, as he became familiar with terms like social stratification and curricular tracking, he got quite emotional realizing he had been a victim of grouping based on perceived ability. He cried. He realized that memorizing facts and figures for regurgitation wasn’t how everyone was taught to treat information. “I consider myself a smart guy”, said Brown. “Once I learned that someone was outsmarting me my whole life…..that made me kind of emotional”.

Reading Jaylen’s thoughts brought me back to a discussion I had many years ago with the principal of a school I worked at. I had laid out my goals for the next year. I was proposing to expand choice time while including children’s recording (not every time for every activity) of what they’d done with pictures, phonetic writing, or both and dedicating some time to sharing what they had done. This particular school had a good mix of kids of different ethnicities and socio-economic groups. The principal was a very dedicated African-American man. The school had been mostly project kids (white, black, and Hispanic) for many years. He wanted me to change my goals and use more worksheets. “That kind of learning is okay for some kids but my children need more of the basics”’ he told me. His argument stuck to me for many years. And he was not the last person to make this argument.

Three children sit on a rug playing together with building blocksI do agree that children who have less resources available need the basics. Where I disagree is what that means. The basics are not just discreet pieces of information (letter sounds; number facts) but the context in which they have meaning. And for all young children that context is play.

Play is the work of young children. As a kindergarten teacher, I know that there are information and skills that some children, due to available resources, bring to school which others lack. Now consider what the picture looks like if we separate those who’ve lacked resources (such as books at home, toys for building, or painting easels) from the other children in order to drill them on letter sounds and number facts. First, we are segregating children even if only for part of the day. And, make no mistake, children are very aware of which children are “in need of remedial work” and which aren’t. And perhaps more importantly, they miss out on the learning that takes place while they are gone. And that learning, in the context of play, includes cooperative work, making hypotheses, observing and recording, role playing, and communicating ideas. These are skills that will most assuredly be needed in the workplace of tomorrow.

When we compare those two modes, it is the difference in using information that Jaylen Brown talked about in high school. It happens in the early years as well. Almost as if we were training some children to be managers and others to be line-workers. I don’t think we want that.