Let the children play!

Early childhood research unanimously agrees: Play is the true work of children. Many Scandinavian countries use a play-based early childhood education model until age 7, and they out-perform us by leaps and bounds on measures of academic achievement in later grades. Unfortunately, a fear-based, top-down education climate, resulting from a misuse of standardized testing, has damaged our modern American education system. Play in early childhood has been replaced by the frantic push of formal academics and teacher-directed instruction onto younger and younger children with the false idea that sooner must be better. In reality, the research shows this early push of teacher-directed instruction actually hinders children's learning, academic achievement, attitudes toward school, and ability to discover novel information. Children from quality play-based early childhood programs outperform their counterparts on measures of cognitive, academic and social skills in later grades. Social-emotional skills at age four, such as problem-solving, attention-span, self-control, and perseverance, are stronger predictors of academic success rather than at which age children learn to read. It is through play, not teacher-directed instruction, that these skills are deeply learned.

"Young children learn best through direct sensory encounters and not through a formal academic process. Learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play."  -National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

Recent articles summarizing research on best practice preschool teaching methods:

"Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire." -Slate"...it's more important than ever to give children's remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play."

"The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K" -NY Times

"When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration...Play has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school... the New York City Department of Education developed a framework to support the core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness. Many of them — persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate — have their roots in early childhood."

"School Starting Age: The Evidence" -University of Cambridge

  • "...studies have also consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in children. Pretend play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction. Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’, skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development. Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems..."

  • "...studies have demonstrated superior academic, motivational and well-being outcomes for children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes."​

"Let the Kids Learn Through Play" -NY Times

" ...[teacher-led early learning] 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?"

Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson give his answer to the question parents ask him all the time: 
"How can I get my child interested in science?":

The Outdoor Classroom

"Nature Preschools: Putting Nature at the Heart of Early Childhood Education" -Bank Street College of Education
This is a long article, but it explains Nature Preschools and their benefits so well. Summary of benefits: Constant multisensory novel experiences, superior fine/gross motor and midline-crossing practice, quality social experiences, rich language immersion, scientific/critical thinking and sophisticated observation skill development, leadership and teamwork skill development--thus fostering a healthy self-concept and a life-long sense of appreciation and wonder.

"The Decline of Play in Preschoolers--and the Rise in Sensory Issues" -Washington Post
“Kids are just different,” she started to say. When I asked her to clarify, she said, “They are more easily frustrated – often crying at the drop of a hat.” She had also observed that children were frequently falling out of their seats “at least three times a day,” less attentive, and running into each other and even the walls. “It is so strange. You never saw these issues in the past"...it is before the age of 7 years — ages traditionally known as “pre-academic” — when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain...Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age."

"Learning By Doing: How Outdoor Play Prepares Kids for Achievement in STEM" -National Start Alliance
Research suggests that active, child-led, outdoor exploration wires the brain, and helps kids develop powerful intuitions about concepts central to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Forest Schools

  • Wonderful mainstream video and article from ABC News about the increasing number of outdoor preschools/kindergartens in the US and their benefits.  Briefly discusses forest school programs in Europe. (Note: Video contained within the article does not match. The correct video is linked above.)

  • "Forest Schools Are The Teaching Trend We Should Get On Board With" A concise overview discussing the need for Forest Schools in the US: "...we know that unstructured outdoor play in a natural setting builds confidence, that it gives kids a feeling of agency and control. It enhances creativity, possibly because of the infinite possibility of materials and kids’ ability to design their own activities..."

  • "Early Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors: Kids in Waldkindergarten, also known as forest kindergarten, are building fires and braving the snow. And they're all the better for it." -Edutopia  "...[there are] psychological benefits to confronting nature, including heightened self-confidence and social competence. Overcoming natural obstacles -- scaling trees, say, or arranging stones to cross streams -- teaches children to trust their abilities. Observing forest life develops their sensitivity, and the wild classroom makes them fundamentally dependent on cooperation. Out of necessity, whether through helping carry a heavy branch or lending a hand to a friend on a slippery hill, students develop trust, interdependence, and respect.​"

  • "Running Free in Germany's Outdoor Preschools" -NY Times  "...graduates of German forest kindergartens had a “clear advantage” over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development. [Heidelburg University 2003 study]"

  • "Out of the Classroom and Into the Woods" -NPR  "...Eventually, one of the boys realizes he can get leverage using the tree's branches. Teacher Eliza Minnucci is standing about 20 feet away, watching. "We're supposed to study force and motion in kindergarten," she says — and these boys just got a real-world lesson. "Outside offers so much," she says. "It is sort of the deepest and widest environment for learning that we have.""​

"Get the Dirt on Dirt" -National Wildlife Federation
"When we let our kids play in dirt we're not only allowing them to explore the wonders around them, we are also exposing them to healthy bacteria, parasites, and viruses that will inevitably create a much stronger immune system! Many kids who live in an ultraclean environment have a greater chance of suffering from allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases that we would otherwise be protected from through the simple pleasure of playing with some nice common dirt... [exposure to bacteria in dirt] can even enhance learning..."

"Get Your Children Good and Dirty" -Wall Street Journal
"By preventing babies and children from following their innate impulse to get dirty, we shield them from the microbial exposure that is essential for the development of a healthy immune system."

National Wildlife Federation on connecting children with nature
Connecting children and nature has important health benefits. Studies show outdoor time helps children grow lean and strong, enhances imaginations and attention spans, decreases aggression, and boosts classroom performance and standardized test scores.

The mental and physical benefits of "Forest Bathing" -World Economic Forum
"...In a 2009 study...positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods. This is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better--inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function...The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. “Accordingly,” the researchers wrote, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.”"