Mandates, Brain Growth, and Play.


Presented at the DEY Organizing Event at NAEYC 11/17/2017 by Marcy Guddemi, PhD, MBA, National Consultant

Thank you, everyone, for being here.  DEY (Defending the Early Years) is one of Marcy Guddemi, a blonde woman, speaking at the NAEYCthe most crucial, on-target, “need it more than ever” organizations in our field and I am grateful to be an Advisory Board member.  The work we do as an advocacy organization could not be more critical during this overly-academic, overly-structured didactic era for PreK and K children.  Just because a few children can read at age five does not mean that all children should be reading at age five!  Yet legislators and other decision makers continue to create academic mandates for our four- and five-year-old children that are completely non-developmentally appropriate. We are also at a time when we have more research than ever about how young children learn.  Yet legislators and other decision makers ignore this research and instead make mandates that are in conflict with the research!  For example, there is absolutely no research that shows that a structured, large group, teacher-led approach to teaching young children improves test scores or helps children learn to read faster.  In fact, there is research proving the opposite.  Children learn more in a play-based curriculum.  One of the things that I love about our profession is that we now have the research that proves some of the things that we used to just have a “gut level feelings” for.  As an example, I asked my mother how I learned to read and she said, “You sat on my lap and we would read books over and over and before I knew it you were reading.”  Research shows that this is indeed how some children learn to read!  Current research also shows that reading to young children is one of the most important things adults can do with children.  One research study concluded that the difference between readers and non-readers at the end of first grade was whether they were read to.  My mother just had a gut feeling that reading to children was a good thing, but now research confirms it.  Research enhances, legitimizes, and professionalizes our field which for a long time many thought was mere baby-sitting.There is power in this research!   The new research on the brain is providing more knowledge about how children learn and it is undeniably very convincing.  This research is based upon neuroscience—the study of how the brain connects neurons and builds what some people call the architecture or the wiring of the brain.  These connections in the brain are learning.  New knowledge is connected to old knowledge. In addition, with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) we can physiologically see what is happening in the brain.  Jack Shonkoff’s work in Neurons to Neighborhoods:  The Science of Early Childhood Development is an important contribution to our field.  Photographs show the brain at birth with few connections and then later in childhood with many more connections.

Particularly interesting is the relationship between the growth of executive functioning in the brain and play.  Executive functioning is housed in the frontal cortex of the brain.  Executive functioning enables a child to delay gratification, to have self-control, to use stored learning that helps problem solve later, to focus, to have grit and a multitude of other “soft,” but essential, skills.  Deborah Leong’s and Elena Bodrova’s research in Pre-K and Kindergarten, documented in Tools of the Mind studies, found that a play-based curriculum produced higher test score in math and literacy–even in low income neighborhoods.  Their studies also found that these children had higher executive functioning over the control group who had an overly academic, now traditional Pre-K and K curriculum.  Hence, there was a strong link between learning and executive functioning.  Another study of middle school readers and executive functioning found that one group could read and comprehend what was read.  Another group of children could “read” but not comprehend what they read.  (Since the definition of reading is processing print to get meaning, one could debate whether the second group was really reading of just barking out the words.)  The MRI’s of the first group showed that the area of the brain with executive functioning was quite developed, while the children who had little comprehension showed little development of that area of the brain.  Playing in the early years is linked to better readers later.  In addition to higher test score, executive functioning is also associated with better behavior in the classroom—less fighting, less infractions; and better focus, persistence, empathy for others, and kindness to others.

All types of play are important in the early years, but they are not of equal value.  This is a very important point in understanding how play is linked to executive functioning.  Construction play, block play, water play, puzzles, clay, painting, etc., are all valuable and essential for children.  However, the most important and highest level of play is socio-dramatic play or pretend play with others.  Mature socio-dramatic helps develop executive functioning.  The Tools of the Mind curriculum main goal is to teach children how to pretend play with others and how to stay in the chosen role for up to 45 minutes.  In this type of role playing, children are practicing cooperation, problem solving, perspective of others, spontaneity, creativity, and all while using lots of language—a lot more language than in a teacher-led curriculum.  Children in this study who were able to advance to the highest level of mature socio-dramatic play had higher levels of executive functioning.

Children need executive functioning skills to achieve academic success in the later years of elementary, middle, and high school years.  The growth of executive functions starts at birth and starts to flatten around age seven.  For children to succeed in elementary and later schooling, they need to be able to focus, tune out other distractions, and persist.  They need to be creative and problem solve to build new knowledge based on old knowledge.  If our goal is to have all children reading fluently by the end of third grade and have success in the later years, preschool and Kindergarten children need to have unstructured spontaneous play for at least 45 minutes every day within their play-based curriculum.  The early years are the time to build executive functioning.  There is nothing more important than building executive functioning during the early years.

Mandates that are not based on research are absurd!  As advocates, DEY and all of you must send our legislators, superintendents, principals, and teacher articles about how children learn.  We need to speak out on behalf of young children.  We need to defend these early years.  There are many great resources on the DEY website,  Two of my favorites articles are:

We all need to fight for the child’s right to have play in their curriculum.  It is the most important aspect of childhood and we cannot deny them play.  Thank you for coming this evening.