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Valuing Play over Rigor in Early Childhood Settings

We must look deeper at the development that unfolds in the first five years of life to best meet the needs of young children.

  • Volume: 1
  • Issue: 3
Sandy Pennington
January 3,  2020
InterACT Online

Currently, the atmosphere in education reflects an emphasis on such items as outcomes, testing, state-defined curriculum, and teacher accountability. In early childhood settings for children birth to age five, we are often questioned about our methods to align children’s school experiences with the expectations for Kindergarten and beyond. In a culture of high achievement and success, adults may believe that a rigorous early childhood program is the answer; questions about workbooks, flashcards, and handwriting lessons abound. How do early childhood educators and programs reconcile the outcome-based mindset with their knowledge of how preschoolers learn? When one looks deeper at the unique qualities of early childhood, you will see the vast differences between a three-year-old and a seven-year-old child. We must look deeper at the development that unfolds in the first five years of life to best meet the needs of young children.

The keys to a child’s future success are not based on traditional teaching methods, but rather upon embracing a philosophy, curriculum, and goals based on the tenets of child development. An elementary-aged child can watch a video or read a book to expand their knowledge of the world, thanks to representational thinking; young children cannot. While they may be exposed to new ideas through video and print, it is rarely an authentic experience for the younger child.

Through a series of predictable sequence of development stages, early childhood educators strive to design learning experiences around these development principles rather than educational instructional methods.
Through a series of predictable sequence of development stages, early childhood educators strive to design learning experiences around these development principles rather than educational instructional methods.

Child development is the study of each domain of human development: physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and language, and paired with the understanding that each child moves through a predictable sequence of development (Crumlin, 2008; Gessell Theory, 2019). Most are familiar with this concept in the infant stages of physical development: first, a baby rolls over, sits, crawls, pulls up, and then walks. Some babies will learn to walk at nine months and others at fourteen months, both of which are considered within the normal range. We can expect each child to move through each predictable stage in sequential order in every domain of development, with individual variances in the timetable at which each child attains each new milestone.

Knowing that basis, we can better examine a developmental approach to early childhood education.

“Academics” in the Preschool Setting

One positive change in the evolution of educating young children is the understanding of best practices during the preschool years, which have been based on child development theory and are now being replaced with educational instructional methods. Fifty years ago, children often began school in first grade, but Kindergarten is now the universal starting age. Further, 66% of four-year-olds and 42% of three-year-olds attend school (Preschool and Kindergarten Enrollment, 2019). The approach in many of these classrooms is full of expectations based on education models rather than developmental stages, which, in turn, fails to recognize children’s needs and causes concern for early childhood educators.

A development model of education places emphasis on active, hands-on, and open-ended learning experiences.
A development model of education places emphasis on active, hands-on, and open-ended learning experiences.

Think back 100 years: children used to begin school around age six or seven, and at this age, children develop into the concrete operational stage of cognitive development (Russell, 2011; Sax, 2001). Children can read, use logic, have representational thinking, and as such, understand more sophisticated concepts. Now we find that traditional education methods have trickled down their expectations to younger and younger children, most of which are not developmentally ready for these types of tasks. While children will display some level of “mastery,” often, the knowledge is rote and without a true understanding of the concept. Think of the online videos with toddlers reciting all of the U.S. Presidents’ names in order. While adorable for friends and grandparents, it does not put those children on the fast track to becoming an award-winning historian. They have merely attained rote knowledge.

And those children who begin walking at nine months? They don’t grow up to be marathon winners because they were early walkers. They all become proficient walkers, period. However, too many educators and administrators have come to push expectations for literacy onto children far earlier than many are ready.  And to what benefit? Research shows that early gains in reading level out by third grade (Carlsson-Page, 2015).

Developmental, play-based programs are founded on the theorists of child development. They are most deeply rooted in John Dewey’s theories of hands-on, active, authentic learning for young children. They see Erik Erikson’s theories as a foundation for children’s psychosocial development, and they use Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in guiding the teacher’s role. They embrace Maria Montessori’s method of having children self-select activities geared to children’s developmental level. They use Reggio Emilia’s practice of incorporating real-life learning experiences, as the children learn self-help skills at mealtimes and with classroom materials. The list can go on and on.

In a developmental model, teachers present concepts and experiences in ways that are authentic and meaningful to children through a hands-on, open-ended, and active-learning basis. Think of an apple. How best would you learn about an apple as a preschooler? Is it through a worksheet with a silhouette of an apple shape? Or through experiencing a basket full of apples that you see, touch, taste, smell, and even hear as you take a bite? Teachers could train young children to recite the numerals to one hundred, but they seek to teach them to count ten objects as they base their expectations on developmental milestones. Again, they prioritize children attaining a deeper understanding of the world around them to create a firm foundation for future learning. Let’s take a closer look at learning in a developmental, play-based setting.

What Looks Like Play is Meaningful Learning

I had a wonderful conversation with a parent recently. It started with her sharing that she had been thinking about moving her daughter to another preschool. Day after day, her neighbor‘s child was coming home from their preschool with elaborate craft projects and worksheets filled with shape drawings. Her thought was that she really liked our play-based school, but her neighbor’s child was bringing home so many great things, and perhaps her child was missing out.

Although children’s art may look somewhat awkward to the untrained eye, something as simple as painting on a piece of paper is an opportunity to practice creative expression, motor skills, textures, and more.
Although children’s art may look somewhat awkward to the untrained eye, something as simple as painting on a piece of paper is an opportunity to practice creative expression, motor skills, textures, and more.

The worried mother reached out to a friend and blogger who is very knowledgeable about child development. Her friend began asking questions. Does your child’s school send home scribbled artwork? Do they have sensory tables in the classrooms and change the materials in them regularly? Do they have playdough on the tables? Are the teachers highly trained? Is your child’s school accredited? And more. The answers were all yes. The mother’s friend assured her that the play-based school was doing it right because it focused on child-centered learning. The parent was so relieved; she knew that she loved our school from her first visit, but couldn‘t articulate why. A year later, she is so glad that she stayed, and of course, I am as well. As we continued our conversation, I knew the mother had tapped into a deeper understanding of childhood development.

What does it mean to be a play-based program? After thirty years in early childhood, “play-based” is a term I use frequently; however, some may not have the same grasp of the same concept. When you see a preschool classroom of blocks, dramatic play, music, art, sensory play, and more, you may wonder what learning could be happening in this environment. When all you see is various children’s art, rather than worksheets and flashcards, they are tangible, visible examples of what play-based means. Let’s examine a child painting at the easel to illustrate the concept.

In a play-based program, a child will inevitably come home from school with a completely brown painting and be thrilled by it. It will be covered with layers of once-bright tempera paints that have now been swirled and mixed into a top-to-bottom, wall-to-wall landscape of dull brown. Although a parent may think “Ugh, that’s not one I am putting on the refrigerator,” it greatly illuminates a play-based learning philosophy. Let me walk you through the experience through my eyes.

Repetitive activities from a young age can bring tremendous value to a child’s development through exposure to different dimensions and the deepening of understanding.
Repetitive activities from a young age can bring tremendous value to a child’s development through exposure to different dimensions and the deepening of understanding.

A child at the easel faces a blank page, pots of colored paints, and endless opportunities for learning. Off of the top of my head, here is a quick list of the learning that happens here:

  • Fine motor skills of manipulating the brushes
  • Gross motor skills of painting on a vertical surface (easel) rather than a horizontal surface (table)
  • Creative expression as there are no graphics or focused adult-selected objectives
  • Drawing/writing skills as they form lines, shapes, symbols
  • Science processes as they observe changes as colors, textures, and paints are mixed on the page and
  • Language, as the teachers may ask the child about what they have drawn and had the child dictate their response.

Just like that, multiple areas of children’s development are addressed in one single classroom activity.

Further, children learn through repetition. The easel will be in the classroom all year, and the teachers will vary the mediums for children‘s use. What happens if you add shaving cream to the paint? Or use watercolors instead? Or add glue into the paint and paint on foil? Or use spray bottles with colored water? Or add an extract to create scented paint? A peer might even join to do a “partner painting,” which adds a social component.

These variations extend learning (building on the list above) and support further opportunities to learn about the properties of liquids and solids, art mediums, and more. This list is quite impressive when you stop and examine something as simple as a child’s easel painting; this is called “process-art,” a hallmark of a play-based program. In developmentally based programs, we cherish and nurture the process of creation and expression, not the end product. Parents can feel almost disappointment to receive muddy brown paintings day after day. However, each one is a testament to discovery, expression, and exploration.

Well, what about those perfectly-constructed spider crafts that your neighbors are bringing home these days? The key is to remember THAT IS NOT ART – not process art, anyway. They are an excellent measure of other skills: following an adult‘s multi-step directions, practicing fine motor skills to assemble the craft, learning pre-math directional terms (above, below, beside), learning science concepts (a spider has eight legs), etc. “Product art” has its place in the early childhood setting, but it has an entirely different end goal. Just last week, I observed a classroom, and the children were building skeletons with glue and cotton swabs. The teacher listed the activity under “Fine Motor Skills,” not “Art Projects.” I was delighted to see an example of the distinction in her lesson plans.

In fact, teachers could have the children make crafts each day, and they would receive rave reviews for it. Many schools take this approach and do so successfully. However, other schools seek out opportunities to create child-centered, process-focused experiences for children. They prioritize children’s authentic experiences over more product-based outcomes, and ultimately the children have a richer, multi-dimensional, and more meaningful experience because of it. Perhaps now you can see why the teachers gush about the amazing muddy brown painting that a child did that day – through the lens of valuing the child-centered experience.

And the subject of this conversation, the little girl? She has shown developmental progression and a strong interest in some “academic” pursuits, such as early literacy and numeracy concepts. Along with that, she is a delightful, inquisitive, creative, social, and independent child.

Focusing on Soft Skills

Studies show a strong need for “soft skills” in the workplace (Majid, 2012). Just try an internet search, and you will find listings for the need for skills like communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem solving, creativity, interpersonal skills, and more. Long before there was an emphasis on these skills in the workplace, early childhood educators placed a priority on teaching exactly these skills to children to carry them into elementary and beyond.

Soft skills, such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork are essential elements of an early childhood developmental approach.
Soft skills, such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork are essential elements of an early childhood developmental approach.

Developmental programs emphasize the importance of preschoolers’ emotional development and social skills. While elementary school curriculums may address this on a limited basis through character development themes, the developmental program makes emotional and social growth a major component. The list below was created by teachers at our school as one of our five core values for children from birth to five years.

  • Children express a range of emotions as a natural part of their development. We identify and acknowledge these emotions and create opportunities for children to express them in healthy, constructive ways.
  • Children model what they see teachers treat children and other staff with respect, kindness, and empathy.
  • Children are learning how to participate in group activities, getting along with peers, and develop trust for other adults. We support this task by creating opportunities for meaningful interactions with others, nurturing friendships, and teaching conflict resolution skills at every age.
  • Children develop a sense of accomplishment and an enhanced sense of self-esteem through competence and mastery of tasks. Children are provided opportunities to grow in independence and self-reliance through routines and activities.

Each of these tenets specifically addresses the foundation for soft skills in life. When you hear of early childhood programs that say that they develop the “whole child,” they are referring to the emphasis on social and emotional development in their program. This is an integral part of the preschool years and must be incorporated into the classroom; without these skills in place, a child will struggle greatly in the kindergarten classroom and beyond.

The Teacher’s Role in the Classroom

Our knowledge of child development tells us that children will move through childhood stages at their own pace, and the teacher’s role is to recognize, support, and embrace that development. Teachers seek to create a curriculum that provides a balance of experiences that give children a sense of both mastery and challenge. We want children to have experiences of both success and exposure to new concepts as their development unfolds.

Each teacher comes to know and understand the individual children in their class. Teachers tailor their curriculum to incorporate the individual differences that occur with development and the particular interests that the children hold (one year’s class may be fascinated with insects and the next year’s class is intrigued by dinosaurs.) Opportunities to weave those interests into the classroom are not found in prescribed, pre-packaged curriculums, but rather, teachers use this knowledge to develop relevant, meaningful activities for their class. This is based on the writings of John Dewey, who urges teachers to be intentional in their selection of curriculum and activities based on the child’s understanding of their world around them.

To further articulate the teacher’s role in promoting learning, we again turn to child development. The developmental theorist, Lev Vygotsky, has defined the term “zone of proximal development” (ZDP) as the sweet spot between what a child can do naturally and the potential learning/accomplishments with outside assistance. When we speak of teachers as facilitators in the classroom, their essential role is to fulfill the ZPD and assist children in reaching their next level. Early childhood teachers recognize children’s current abilities, what developmental stage is emerging, and thoughtfully intervene to promote learning and development.

So the next time you see a child’s carefully-constructed preschool craft project, perhaps this column will echo in your mind. Perhaps you will smile to yourself and think, ahhhh, that‘s not really art. And if you do, you will know that you are one of the precious few that recognizes the deeper value of a play-based, developmental philosophy for young children.

Looking at Programs Through the Developmental Lens

The focus of traditional education is to develop specific cognitive skills in children (reading, writing, math, and science). The skills that children are expected to acquire are based on state mandates, within state timelines, and with little regard for individual differences. Further, many activities in education are drawn from methods designed for older children who learn in more developed (representational) ways: flashcards, worksheets, and rote-memorization. Often, children are expected to produce “work” without the true knowledge behind a concept. High-quality early childhood education gives children true, authentic learning experiences about the tangible, meaningful world around them, laying the foundation for future conceptual learning.

Teachers develop an appreciation and understanding for children as individuals, and use this knowledge to engage interests, explore relevant concepts, and make connections.
Teachers develop an appreciation and understanding for children as individuals, and use this knowledge to engage interests, explore relevant concepts, and make connections.

Developmental programs strive to support children’s development, placing equal weight on academics, physical development, and social/emotional growth. This gives children the tools to be successful beyond just academics; through well-developed peer-problem solving skills, self-sufficiency in the classroom setting, following multi-step directions, managing and constructively expression emotions, and the list can go on and on. Educators see children’s development as a complete system, rather than individual or isolated accomplishments in the cognitive domain.

What looks like play is children’s learning taking place. The infant who is being snuggled and sung to is meeting Maslow’s need for safety, security, and belonging. The toddler who is using a tiny pitcher to pour water into her cup is fulfilling her need for using real-life items to learn and internalize what she sees at home. A two-year-old who says, “me do it!” to put on his jacket, when it would be faster an adult to do so, is allowing for Erikson’s need for autonomy and independence. The three-year-old who asks for help with a floor puzzle is illustrating Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. The four-year-old who lights up when talking about volcanoes and the teacher scraps the planned activity to make time for vinegar and baking soda chemical reactions fall under Dewey’s guidance for authenticity for children.

Play-based programs have created child-centered settings where classroom and policy decisions are made based on what provides the most meaningful and authentic experience for children. They stand by the time-tested child development theories and embrace them in our classrooms daily. They steadfastly continue this approach, despite the trend to push children into “academics” at younger and younger ages. They create a haven for children to explore, create, and enjoy each moment of early childhood, and proudly send them off to elementary school with all of the skills and knowledge for challenges that lay ahead.


Carlsson-Page, N. (2015) Reading Instruction in Kindergarten. Retrieved from https://dey.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/readinginkindergarten_online-1__1_.pdf.

Crumlin, J. (2008). Developmental Milestones. Encyclopedia of Special Education. John Wiley and Sons.

Gessell Theory. (2019). Retrieved from https://gesellinstitute.org/pages/gesell-theory.

Majid, S, Liming, Z, Tong, S, Raihana,S. (2012). Importance of Soft Skills for Education and Career Success. International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, Vol 2, 1036-1042

Preschool and Kindergarten Enrollment. (2019). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cfa.asp.

Russell, J. (2011). From Child’s Garden to Academic Press: The Role of Shifting Institutional Logics in Redefining Kindergarten Education. American Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 236-267. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27975289

Sax, L. (2001) Reclaiming Kindergarten. Psychology of Men and Masculinity. Vol 3, No. 1 3-12.

Ms. Pennington has over 30 years of experience in early childhood education with children from birth to five years of age. She is the administrator of a downtown preschool program in Austin, Texas.

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