Berkeley Teachers Let Them Play

In May of this year, we came across a New York Times article by David Kohn called “Let the Kids Learn Through Play.” At the time, we were promoting some Friends & Family Grants from Berkeley preschool teachers trying to bring more play into their classrooms. These teachers already felt strongly about the points of the article: encouraging play in preschools actually helps our youngest students become stronger, creative, and dedicated learners.

PreschoolPlay2Kohn writes, “The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?”

In keeping with Kohn’s findings, many of our Berkeley preschool teachers outline the varying benefits of play in their Classroom Grant applications.

King CDC preschool teacher Deborah Thies received a grant for a water table last year. She writes, “Because sand and water play is open-ended, the child steers the play and this open-ended quality allows children to freely explore while building key developmental concepts. As always, any opportunity to practice sharing and turn taking is welcomed in preschool. Sand and water are such popular activities, and they regularly offer our students the chance to work together, solve problems, include others, and take turns.”

Sarah Nattrass, a teacher at Franklin Preschool, received a grant last year to replace a wooden bridge for the yard. She explains, “Children have developed many play themes around the bridge…and this addresses many developmental domains that are a core of the preschool curriculum, such as: extension activities related to literacy, pretend play, use of language, social emotional skills, and gross motor development.”

Our teachers also often point out a different kind of benefit beyond creating better students: equity.

PreschoolPlay3Berkeley preschool programs, unlike other Berkeley public schools, do not rely on the lottery system for placement. Almost all students in these preschools are low income or special needs. King CDC teacher Gurjeet Ahluwalia explains in her application for a grant for enrichment supplies, “Our preschool program caters to the needs of low income families who do not necessarily have access to the learning and exploring hands-on materials that this grant will provide. This will be another step towards fulfilling the District’s 20/20 vision. Children enjoy using these materials, which in turn helps them become creative and confident as they participate in cooperative group play.”

Despite these benefits, many preschool programs across the U.S. are cutting playtime in favor of more academically focused curriculum. Kohn writes, “Increasingly these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-lead, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5.” With higher demands placed on teachers at all levels to cater to standardized testing and methods, pressure to start early makes sense.

The article sites Cambridge University psychologist David Whitebread to dispute this mentality. “Play is often perceived as immature behavior that doesn’t achieve anything… But it’s essential to their development. They need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to control emotions. Kids learn these things through playing.”

Preschool students in Berkeley are lucky to have a community that supports play-based learning. Hopkins preschool teacher Michael McLaughlin has received many grants from the Schools Fund over the years. He writes, “The idea behind play-based learning is not some laise-faire, hands-off, completely open ended approach on the part of the teacher. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. In order to effectively use play-based learning in a classroom, preschool teachers much plan their environment and materials in a way that fosters their students’ curiosity and motivation to interact within the classroom… We have been lucky in the preschool program by having the support of administrators that see the value in play-based learning; and whom have used a variety of methods to provide teachers with the resources and training needed to make that model work.”