Start Early. Start well.

March 20, 2017

Professional Learning Institute Focuses On Power of Play to Support Children's Learning

Omaha, Neb. — Harnessing the power of play and child-initiated inquiry to boost children’s learning was the focus of the third and final institute of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2016-17 series March 2 and 4 in Omaha.

Nearly 300 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “Young Children as Active Thinkers: Integrated Learning Matters.”

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and families, and give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other.

Brain research and young thinkers

Dr. Judy Harris Helm, who assists early childhood centers and elementary schools in integrating research and new methods through her consulting and training company, Best Practices, Inc., said in her keynote address that many ideas about the brain that educators were taught years ago have been disproved by later research. Some of the ideas, such as you can’t change the brain, or that all important functions are determined by age 3, or that people are “left-brained” or “right-brained,” have been used to sort out children in ways that can limit their optimal learning and development.


“We know the brain grows and prunes itself,” Helm said. “Your brain is either growing and forming new neural connections or it’s pruning. If you’re not learning, your brain is pruning. The brain gets rid of things it doesn’t use.”

Helm said mind brain education emerged as a science in the 1980s and 1990s. She listed 10 instructional guidelines in mind brain education. One is the importance of learning environments.

Part of creating a good learning environment is choosing activities that are child-centered, dynamic, and intellectually stimulating. Helm gave an example of a Caterpillar tractor project that began when children playing outside noticed excavation work going on next door.

“Children were hanging on the fence. When they came inside, the teacher did not say, ‘This week we’re talking about puppies.’ Instead, she asked what they wanted to talk and think about. They wanted to know about the Caterpillar tractor. They made plans about what they wanted to do and learn. That is an intellectually stimulating environment, because children are following their own lead and are making decisions about what they are doing. This creates a great deal of engagement. It puts all those neurons aflutter. They’re ready to learn.”

Helm said a third-grade teacher’s students were fascinated by a tree that had fallen down. “One child said the tree has roots like a plant. Another child said that’s not a plant, it’s a tree. Another said yes it is: a tree is a plant. It led to a big discussion about whether trees are plants, with lots of learning involved.”

When the teacher shared her story with her colleagues, some of them were outraged. “The Kindergarten teacher and the first-grade teacher said ‘We covered trees, they should know that,’” Helm said. “Covering something is not the same as teaching. It has to engage children for them to really learn it. Just because you say it doesn’t mean it happens.”

The serious business of play

Debora Wisneski, associate professor and the John T. Langan professor in early childhood education at the University of Nebraska Omaha, put session participants to work—playing. Adults dug into bags filled with Legos, magnets, finger puppets, paper bags, colored paper, markers, and other items.

“If you’re not a good player, it’s hard to be a teacher who supports play,” she said.

“Play is such a human activity. We all need it at every stage of life. Children in the first five years of life need it most,” she said. “That’s how they learn. They’re not just playing; they’re learning.”

Wisneski talked about the different kinds of play, and also about teachers’ role in it. She said there are three roles teachers can play: Trust in play, which is completely hands off; facilitated or guided play; and teacher-directed play.

“We just need to remember that play equals learning, and recognize all the deep levels of learning that are happening,” she said. “We have an important role to play. Try on some of those roles if you haven’t before.”

“We must also be reflective and intentional,” Wisneski said. “To me, what that means is observing children very closely when they are playing and asking questions. I know babies aren’t going to answer your questions. You have to look harder. If you have what you think is an awesome play area and no one is going near it, they’ve just told you. They’re the experts.”

Play with a purpose

Donna Dobson and Luisa Palomo Hare described the Omaha Public Schools initiative to integrate purposeful play into Kindergarten classes and ultimately into the primary grades. They shared the curriculum and instruction support guide completed last summer entitled “Transforming Kindergarten.”

A team of teachers from across the district “spent about six months meeting and tearing apart everything we knew about Kindergarten,” said Dobson, who is the district’s director of early elementary education. The resulting guide isn’t meant to be a checklist—“We’re saying these are good things you can be doing.”

High-quality purposeful play will be a big part of Kindergarten going forward, Dobson and Palomo Hare said. Students will be given choices daily, but direct instruction will still play a part.

“You still have to teach for the children to learn,” Dobson said. “You’re explicitly teaching reading but kids also have the opportunity to play with it, to practice with it. We’re talking about play that helps children make connections.”

Palomo Hare agreed: “The heart of everything we’re doing to transform Kindergarten is play. We want this to be a lasting change. This is going to be a foundation, so it will be a model for first grade and beyond.”

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