I do feel that children learn through play. No question about it. The explorations of the world start there, putting an interesting object in the mouth in infancy, banging things together, throwing, crawling, touch, taste, pretend... these are the the building blocks of learning. But so is the relationship between the caregiver and the child. If there were a soap box about primary care, in an Infant Toddler Program, I would stand on it now. If there were ever an argument for keeping infants and toddlers with the same teachers and peers for the first three years of their lives, it would be now. A play based curriculum without the foundational care of a primary relationship? exists for me, philosophically speaking, in a vacuum.
You can't have one without the other.
So this is the dilemma. These children of mine range in age from 3-5 years old. They need different things from me as their teacher. The environment is set up for them to play, and to play well. Procedures for how to use materials and toys are deeply ingrained in these children who have grown up in this school, progressing from one classroom to the next based on age and the achievement of developmental milestones. They know what to do, do they know how to be? Sometimes yes. The push for independence is high, the lack of interdependence is astonishing. The role of the teacher is viewed, in my experiences thus far as something remote. One stands, guards, sets up the environment, talks to the children when they need re directing. And yet, it feels empty. These kids, like all the kids I've ever taught in the last fourteen years of my career, need an adult attachment figure while they are apart from their parents. It doesn't matter if the child is four months old, or four years old. It looks different, it feels different, yet these children need that co-regulation partner the same way an infant does. Children learn literally in the context of their earliest relationship. An adults caregiving style, and skill, the bond between the adult and the child, quite literally affects and maps how the early brain develops. It isn't play, it's relationship. Babies and children learn to play when they feel safe, when they are cared for, nurtured, and responded to. They venture out, they explore, they return to the safe base of the adult when needed. Some children if they can't regulate their emotions, their bodies, (something established in infancy in the context of the primary caregiving relationship) get to the pre-k class and don't know what to do.
A four year old girl freezes up every time a child says something she doesn't like, every time she can't complete a puzzle she started, every time she needs to say something and can't quite find the words. She stands in front me with large eyes filled with tears about to overflow, incapable of asking for what she needs. I see her inability to regulate herself, her feelings, her fears, her desires in tandem with her inability to communicate. So what is my role? Primary Care. I can't wear this child, it would be developmentally in appropriate. But I can provide the safe base she needs, give her the words she is searching for, and the faith in herself to figure out a complicated puzzle. Without me caring for her, providing a relational context, she cannot, will not access the rich play environment set up for her and her peers. She's four. And this is an opportunity to talk about the role of the teacher in such an established, respected, and cherished school for children not as the only the facilitator, the person who stands at the gate, but also the partner in learning for both children, and their parents.
Play is the thing, but it is not the only thing.