By Geoff Griffin
Play is in the headlines these days, with NPR and the New York Times trumpeting its importance in developing basic cognitive and social skills.
At the Gordon School, where a play-based early childhood curriculum has weathered almost a century of educational trend cycles, these stories have been followed with interest.
When choosing a preschool, how do you judge the role of play in the school day? Ask any educator if they value play, and they will say yes.
This week, I asked the teachers in Gordon’s Early Childhood program for ideas on what to look for as you judge how much play is happening in a preschool classroom.
Play can be noisy. If the class is hushed, ask, “Is it always this quiet?”
Are students given materials that can be used in a variety of ways? There is only one way to use a puzzle piece, but many ways to use a block. Stencils are limited, but graph paper invites all sorts of uses.
How many things are going on?
If every student is doing the same activity, it is probably teacher-initiated. Look for a classroom setup that allows for several small-group activities to happen simultaneously.
Are there opportunities to work together?
Are the workplaces – the easels, the clay table, the computers – set up so that children can interact with one another while they work?
Are student interests integrated into the class?
Ask if there is space for children to initiate extended projects. Look for a student-driven “Kite Store” or “Animal Dentist” alongside the perennial “Book Nook” and “Dress Up” dramatic play areas.
Do they go outside?
How often? For how long? Look at the cubbies; snow pants, extra pair of shoes, and spare shirts are a plus.
Are they invested?
If you ask a child what they are doing, can he or she explain it? Are free play and small group times long enough for children to “lose themselves” in their work?
Listen to the children
Are they listening to one another, and building on one another’s ideas? Are they talking to one another directly, or using the teacher as a go-between?
Geoff Griffin is a parent at Gordon and has been Gordon’s Manager of Publications and Public Relations since 2002.
Additional articles about play provided by the Gordon School:
New York Times: Taking Play Seriously
Howard Chudacoff’s book (Brown University): Children at Play: An American History
A Gordon School News article, circa 2003