“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
Last week, Katy Smith, the 2012 Minnesota Teacher of the Year visited Indiana. She was a great sport as I subjected her to plenty of Hoosier Hospitality. I baked her a sugar creme pie, we ate a world famous breaded tenderloin from Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, and I even told her various legends to help her understand the meaning of the word, “Hoosier.” Those small offerings of hospitality were a small price to pay for the inspiring message Katy brought to Indiana.
Katy is a licensed parent educator. She has the unique role of teaching parents through a state supported early childhood program in Minnesota. Katy can rattle off facts related to the importance of brain development during birth-5 years. She can tell you the rate of return on every dollar invested in early childhood, and she reminds all of us that childhood is fleeting. After spending only a few moments with Katy, you are ready to join her mission to save childhood.
As I’ve reflected on Katy’s mission, I have concluded that in society’s quest to create future geniuses, we have forgotten the genius of childhood. Pablo Picasso said, “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” To ensure that we don’t loose the fleeting moments of childhood, we must all look at how our children are spending their time. If their young lives are filled with TV, video games, and endless car rides to dance class, sports practices, and vocal lessons, then when do they have time to play? Research continually supports the idea that unstructured play enhances language development, social skills, intelligence, imagination, and problem solving abilities. We seem to know that’s true, yet somehow, we are missing the mark because countless children still enter school unprepared to learn. So how do we go about “saving childhood?”
I think we must first look at where we are investing our time and resources. I tell my students every year that my job is to work myself out of a job. I teach middle school reading remediation, and I wish every day that there was no need for my class. If our society could ensure that all children have enriching early childhood experiences, the need for remediation later would decrease significantly. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that they are playing catch up for many students on the very first day of school. As a community, we need to embrace childhood and promote programs that invest in developmentally appropriate experiences in early childhood.
The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is a shining example of an organization that is committed to recapturing the joys of childhood. As part of Katy’s visit, we had the opportunity to interact with several of the researchers designing the new playscape experience for the museum. Kudos to the designers for believing that children learn through play, and thank you to the Children’s Museum for their commitment to sharing that belief with every parent who visits. A trip to the preschool classes housed at the Children’s Museum reflected the same belief system. Opportunities for exploration, imagination, and play welcomed us at every turn. No doubt, these children will enter school ready to learn. As our nation begins to have conversations about the importance of funding early childhood programs, let’s remember to also talk about educating parents and the general community as part of that initiative. We all want what is best for children. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded that it is ok to let our kids play. Today, I celebrate the wonders of play and ask you to join Katy’s mission to save childhood.