Children love to play. Everyone knows that. But, according to Nicole Mitchell, Clinical Assistant Professor in Auburn’s Early Childhood Education program, play is an essential part of the learning process. Hence, this year’s Early Childhood Summer Enrichment Program had as its theme, “Permission to Play.”
“Children want to play, and that is exactly what they should be doing,” Mitchell said. “Besides being a joyful endeavor, teaching through play is actually how children learn best. Many people don’t realize what competent learners children are when given the space and support to engage playfully in activities of their choosing.”
Mitchell served as the program’s lead teacher while working closely with program director Dr. Sean Durham. He acknowledged that such a “permission to play” model might not sound very academic to those unfamiliar with the profound learning that happens in the context of play, but he points to its necessity.
“We are living in a time when the principle act of childhood, play, has diminished at alarming rates. Play is foreign in many classrooms, ‘recess’ times have been cut, and most play situations are highly directed by adults. Children need to play – for their mental health, physical development, and ability to think and learn. Unfortunately, in places where children are cared for and educated, the primary lesson is how to follow instructions from adults. We wanted our program to be an open invitation to children’s play.”
The summer enrichment program has been held at Auburn University for 28 consecutive years. What never changes is the effort to develop lifelong learners and children who will grow into good citizens in our democracy.
The first step in building a play curriculum, is to design a rich, stimulating environment. The program is housed in a series of connected classrooms in the Haley Center and included many traditional classroom elements for the children to explore. In addition to books, blocks and dramatic play, this year there was a large art studio set up with paint, clay, wire, markers, paper, and recycled materials to encourage children to creatively explore concepts and designs. Many children used the art of famous artists and book illustrators as models for their work. The sand and water station served as a place where children observed scientific concepts such as compounds, gravity, movement, and force. Play in this area led to applications about how water is used to make electricity and water’s force that is observed in the weather.
Academic explorations tied to classroom environment
Beyond the academic applications, the program let the power of the environment influence children’s abilities to develop emotional regulation and other executive function skills. Neutral colors and natural, soft lighting complemented the furnishings and created what Mitchell called “a calm and inspired learning space, ready to support whatever the children imagined.” This rich learning environment has been enhanced recently through the generosity of PowerTech America, which is part of the area’s Hyundai-Kia family of industries. PowerTech’s $40,000 gift allowed the program to purchase high-end sand and water tables, art easels and supplies, and many other tools that are necessities for high-quality early learning environments.
“After we design the environment, we take a step back and observe where the children are in their development, what is most interesting to them, and how they are using the materials to learn,” Mitchell explained. “We strive to make sure each planned experience, each question posed to the child, is thoughtfully considered to meet the child’s individual learning and any interruption in play is intentionally measured against the learning that is happening organically. It is through this careful process that we find ways to take their learning further.”
One classroom featured several feet of low shelves containing hundreds of wooden blocks, which were also supported by the PowerTech gift. Early in the program, a few children thought that their block play related to playing with toy cars. They initiated building a road made of construction paper along the entire back side of the classroom. They exhibited planning skills, innovation in choosing materials to replicate a road, and designed street signs and nature backdrops to make their road representative of their real experiences with travel. This self-directed endeavor combined multiple important thinking skills and dispositions that have been recognized as important to modern learners.
“While the types of materials set out and the physical environment are paramount, it is against this backdrop that we focus on an approach that emphasizes relationships to guide learning and behavior. Really, it all comes down to relationships,” Mitchell said.
“If a child is exhibiting problem behavior we don’t look first at how to necessarily fix it. We look first at understanding the behavior. This requires building a relationship with the child, collaborating with parents and other teachers, and developing a plan based on multiple perspectives of those who know the child.”
“It takes trust on the adult part to embrace this philosophy that knowledge is actively built through hands-on experiences in the context of relationships,” Mitchell said. “It can be scary to step back and let the children play because it makes the teacher look passive. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth. The teacher is very active, preparing and constantly refining the environment, observing and meticulously documenting learning, interacting and providing very intentional experiences with the children, and collaborating with other adults to sift through and get as close as possible to real learning.
A training ground for preservice teachers
The program served as a practicum lab setting for 19 preservice teachers, all undergraduates in their junior year of Early Childhood Education. It was their second semester and their first full-time teaching experience with children in a professional setting where they were supported academically. For many, a child-centered approach to education was a new idea.
“It’s a paradigm shift, from teacher as transmitter of knowledge, to teacher as supporter of learning,” Mitchell explained. “This shift is not an easy process. Preservice teachers at the beginning of their teaching journey naturally have some fear about whether they are teaching the children enough. They often think of this as telling the children what they want them to know. It is true that sometimes explicit telling is necessary, and we discuss this in our coursework, but the best learning doesn’t usually happen this way. My favorite part of my job is walking with preservice teachers through this process, empowering them to trust children.”
“I have tried to focus, and Dr. Durham has really supported this idea of taking how children learn best and broadening it to how all people learn best, including adults. We have tried to embrace that preservice teachers can benefit from a curriculum that is flexible and responsive – that they also learn best in relationships with their teachers and children. Our practicum students construct their knowledge of teaching through this very social experience. We have tried to give them room to make mistakes and come to their own conclusions based on collaboration and trial and error.”
“The way many of the preservice teachers rose to the challenges of this work was impressive and inspiring,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who has a Master’s in Family and Child Development from East Carolina University, is passionate about lab school settings and helping students build their understanding about teaching. In the summer program, if a problem came up she might model the type of language or conflict resolution and ask the practicum teachers to observe.
“In early childhood education, it’s always a balance between teacher-directed and child-led experiences, but my bias is that most of the time we interrupt children from real learning with our own agendas. Sometimes that’s necessary, but too often it gets in the way. Here, we have trusted that the children — and our preservice teachers — can challenge themselves in developmentally appropriate ways and, given proper support, we can expect tremendous outcomes.”