MS Child Development, Erikson Institute
“Just” playing? Check out what children are actually learning at Palouse Roots! Ginger Yoder, MS Child Development, Erikson Institute, volunteered with Palouse Roots last spring & shares her observations in the letter below, “Palouse Roots-Learning Through Nature Play.”
“In the world of early childhood education we often hear that “Play is the work of childhood” (Jean Piaget) or “Play is the work of the child.” (Maria Montessori). Yet as adults it is easy for us to wonder just what is going on as children interact in this way with the world. We ask how something as simple as play might support development, or what is really going on when children are just playing. Play can honestly seem a bit unstructured or even frivolous in an early learning environment. We rightly don’t want to waste any of the critical moments of early childhood! However, when we take a closer look at play a whole world of learning opens up, and we can see why child development experts believe that play is truly the foundation of children’s development and growth.
Play often seems carefree, without goals or purpose. It is in fact these qualities that set play apart from other types of interactions as play by definition is joyful and without external guidance. It is enjoyable, fun and compelling for people of all ages! What makes play simply phenomenal is that research shows again and again that play is actually the best way for children to gain the skills needed for the rest of their lives. Physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development are all supported through play, and executive function skills (those needed for decision making and self-control) are enhanced through uninterrupted time in play, especially when supported by intentional teachers and the natural environment. Open, child-driven time in play sets the foundation for creative, competent life-long learners.
I have had the pleasure of observing and teaching at Palouse Roots in the spring of 2021 and honestly as a seasoned teacher I have not yet come across a school that so fully embraces child-centered learning as this special place. The teachers have created a trusting, loving school for children to truly explore and make meaning of the world around them. I would love to share with you all the ways I have seen this school create learning opportunities for the children in their care.
Physical development is often easy to observe in play, especially in forest and nature schools such as Palouse Roots. Climbing trees, walking on logs, jumping off stumps, swinging on branches, and running through fields of grass all support children developing their body skills. The natural environment offers the perfect way for children to practice and enhance physical learning.
Social and emotional development in play is also readily apparent. Children in play interact with each other almost constantly, creating shared games and storylines with each other, and this is no different at Palouse Roots. Through my time at school the uninterrupted time in play has allowed the children’s interactions to evolve and become more complex, creating the foundations of positive social interactions with others and the ability to become emotionally literate. This is one of the most important parts of being human – to be able to function in a group, and through play and teacher support children gain these competencies. As the inevitable conflicts arise, I’ve observed the teachers compassionately stepping in to model listening, articulating feelings, and supporting shared resolutions between children, furthering their social and emotional skills.
Cognitive development, or our thinking brain, is constantly active in play and at Palouse Roots. The children not only get to think about possible math and science scenarios, but get try them out! I have seen a simple board become a lever, with children trying to balance themselves using each other or logs, and even work out the physics of “launching” each other safely up in the air! The engineering of construction using boards, nails and hammers allows children to create their own structures, and I’ve seen children discover that a tree house requires quite a bit of consideration of gravity. The focus on play at Palouse Roots not only lets children learn about these concepts, but truly create the learning for themselves. They don’t just hear about the mechanics of a lever, but get to feel the weight, pull, and push. They don’t look outside to see what the weather is, but get to experience sunshine, rain, mud and snow. They are part of the changing seasons and the natural world around them. They are making meaning of each moment outdoors
One of the greatest opportunities for play is the way it shapes the higher-level skills of our brain. Through long period of play children learn to be creative, follow their heart and minds, figure out what interests them, try out ideas and ultimately gain a love of learning. They get to make decisions, hold attention, make judgments, use memory and develop intention. If anything makes a child ready for further learning in school, it is these skills! I believe that Palouse Roots sets in motion the foundations of school readiness in all the children who attend.
All of this focus on play doesn’t mean the teachers don’t have a role in teaching children, in fact leading a play-based educational program involves teaching with great intentionality and skill. First, teachers consider the environment as essential to the children’s learning. Luckily, outdoor programs like Palouse Roots offers an amazing opportunity for an engaging environment. The natural world is full of endless lessons including observing plant and tree life, natural insects and animals, being part of the seasons and weather, living and growing with the world that surrounds us. Teachers look around each day for new ways to set the stage for learning and provide the materials and invitations for in-depth exploration. A frozen pond is just the right tool for learning about the phases of water. Observing a garden snake teaches curiosity and compassion for the natural world.
Further, teachers in a play-based environment are constantly aware of the ways that they can provide an opportunity for learning, whether it be encouraging a child to try something new and challenging, or supporting two children working together to catch tadpoles. Teachers must constantly figure out when to step into a child’s play or when to let the child lead, when to ask a question and when to stay silent, when to help and when to allow peers to support each other. It is almost a dance, and the goal is to create confident, competent children who will excel at anything they set their minds to. I have been simply amazed at the dance Fiona and Misha engage in each day.
For all that we see as adults, the joyful, laughing moments of play, there is equal if not more learning and development occurring. Play for the preschool child is truly their work. I am so grateful to have spent time in this school to see how truly supportive an environment that embraces the essence of childhood can be.