• One of the most common responses homeschoolers get to questions regarding the education of their young children is “Let them play!” and while this advice is absolutely spot-on, it misses a few important concepts. It’s only half of a very important story.

    I could cite hundreds of studies that support play as the most foundational activity for creating complex neural pathways in the brain that ignite and connect learning. I could add many more that reinforce the idea that formal academics shouldn’t begin before the age of 8.  As Blair Lee and I say in Project-Based Learning: Creating a Modern Education of Curiosity, Innovation, and Impact:

     “The natural and most effective foundation of building lifelong learners from the very beginning is with the application of skills and knowledge through play.  Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child,” and Albert Einstein said “Play is the highest form of research.” Play is so essential to the development of the brain that we really can’t exist normally without it. Play teaches us about structure, limitations, social cues, relationships, and gives us sensory experiences of the world around us.”

    Our brains are wonderfully flexible and capable, with a natural inclination towards curiosity and problem-solving. Play offers opportunities for kinesthetic experiences and real-word application for developing skills. Play has always been, and will continue to be, the activity that best suits the developing minds of young children (and older children, teens, and adults for that matter). If we left children alone, they would certainly still continue to learn. The big question is, would they then reach their fullest potential? Is this what is best for human development?  This is the other half of the story that needs to be addressed.

    Generally, when people ask for advice on educating their young children, they already know play is an essential part of learning and growing. What they are really asking are questions like: How do I engage my gifted or advanced child who wants more than play? How do I incorporate academic knowledge and skills into play so that I create a foundation for my child that learning is fun? How do I create an environment that balances appropriate developmental activities with academic integrity from the very beginning? Is play really enough?

    From these questions you can see that there is more to this than whether or not play is enough for the education of young children. Yes, play is important and should be the center of young children’s experiences. Children should also be immersed in environments where knowledge and skill building are intentional and appropriate. The two are not mutually exclusive. What is missing in the answer “just let them play” is found in many years of research and thousands of studies on child development and early childhood education.

    The casual assertion of “just let them play” does not give enough credit to the thousands of years in which adults have been providing guidance to both their own children and other children in their communities, nor does it acknowledge the decades of evolution in the study of child development that show us that a combination of guided and self-directed learning best supports the different and very specific developmental stages and produces the best educational outcomes.

    Children learn best when they are exposed to a variety of experiences, exploring the world through discovery and intrigue, and have access to a variety of experts of all ages, including and especially adults. When we talk about true socialization, this is what it actually means. It is the process of adults, sometimes assisted by older children and teens, mentoring and apprenticing the next generation or two into the community. This is the way it has always been. The roles adults play, by teaching children new games, pointing out observations, helping them to organize, supporting their interests by finding or providing resources, exposing them to and mentoring them in new skills and ideas that challenge their developing minds, and knowing each child deeply so that there is trust and a willingness to push beyond comfort levels and try new experiences. That relationship between child and parent, teacher or mentor and student, goes beyond play and is an intentional, important piece to a child’s learning.

    This guidance by adults, combined with moments of self-directed learning, creates a balance for children, growing their independence while also ensuring that each developmental stage is met with acknowledgment and action. Notice I’m not talking about early conventional academics, which have generally proven to be stressful and inappropriate for young minds and bodies. Early conventional academics only work for some children who are predisposed to systematic approaches and memorization, but the beneficial effects for even these children wear off by third or fourth grade, and are virtually gone by middle school. In addition, kids who received no early conventional academic schooling at all catch up quickly to those who had. But children who receive an early combined experience of play, guidance, and pre-literacy skills generally develop superior long-term abilities in problem-solving, critical thinking, and adaptability, which are essential for their academic and personal growth. What is more useful to think about when trying to create a learning environment that balances appropriate developmental activities with academic integrity from the very beginning is not reproducing the conventional system, but instead combining science, relationship, and experimentation.

    When children reach age 3 or 4, for example, there are some huge leaps in language, motor skills, and social behavior. Specifically, children in this age group are very interested in organizing and categorizing things that are the same and different, memorizing letters, numbers, and names, and developing their ability to tell stories based on their interests, imaginations, and experiences. They are working on both their fine and large motor skills, mastering the control of their own bodies, and they are invested in social interactions, where parallel (side-by-side) play has been replaced with a genuine desire to connect with other children. This is an optimal time to introduce numbers, letters, drawing and writing as it supports these windows of developmental opportunity and creates foundational neural pathways that they will continue to build on.

    The argument that they will create these connections anyway, no matter when they learn these concepts, is a weak one. That might be the outcome, but it becomes more difficult as children grow older and hit new developmental stages that engages their brain with other, more complex growth. Actively strewing, encouraging, and creating activities at this age that foster pre-literacy skills in all academic subjects is valuable and useful. Think about having a goal for your child to be a solid writer. At the ages of 3-5, we are not, and should not be, asking them to write essays. But if we are frontloading basic skills like organization, vocabulary, the flow of language, critical thinking and analysis, parts of a story, and building both physical and mental endurance for writing, we have laid the groundwork for them to easily move into writing as they get older. If we encourage the development of their fine and large motor skills through activities like drawing and games, they gain control of their bodies more quickly, which benefits a variety of activities and interests. In fact, I am convinced that drawing is the foundation for every other subject, connecting to mathematical concepts, scientific observation, language, art, and history/humanities and should be nurtured as much as possible. Finally, the interest in social interaction that accompanies this age is a perfect time to introduce group learning and networking/resources. Again, this is not about forcing conventional academics, but about realizing that play can and should be accompanied by a measured and intentional exposure to new knowledge and skills, creating a platform on which the next developmental stage can expand on and benefit the learner.

    Harnessing the power of the developmental shift around age 6 or 7 looks a bit different. This developmental shift can feel quite dramatic, often accompanied by overwhelming emotion and extreme focus on interests and passions. In particular, language (both spoken and in symbols) and relationships (both spatial and conceptual) see a significant neurological leap. You might see evidence of your child making connections that are new or more complicated. Your child might also become an “expert” at something, or everything, with their first foray into abstract thought. Children in this phase are now able to see themselves as an individual, both independent and a part of the family, and this new identity can produce both wonder and fear in relationship to bigger concepts such as death or good vs. evil. On the upside, the ability to form images or words inside the head can produce a wonderful era of reading for pleasure, creativity, innovation and building, interest in formal music study, and storytelling. While you might see a lot of mental planning and execution begin to flourish, understand that the tertiary areas that support long term planning and decision making develop later, so I wouldn’t expect much follow through without parental involvement at this point! Doing everything you can to encourage imagination and exploration, particularly through kinesthetic activities that naturally pair strategic or creative thinking with physical action, will not only support the brain’s development during this time, but will also help kids understand how to regulate their own bodies and emotions. The combination of play, hands-on activities, experience, and frontloading skills will support the complex connections between neural pathways and prepare their minds, hearts, and bodies for more rigorous academic work.

    So, how do we engage our gifted or advanced children who want more than play? By acknowledging that all growth can be asynchronistic and we need to observe, listen and act according to each child’s needs, and not hang on to one particular educational philosophy for answers. If your child is asking for more, give them more. This doesn’t need to look like worksheets or lab reports (unless they love them). You can challenge the advanced or gifted child, combining what we know about development and what you know about your child, into a playful and meaningful advancement of knowledge and skill.

     How do we incorporate academic knowledge and skills into play so that we create a foundation for our children that learning is fun? By gearing those skills towards their interests and setting them up for success. This means that as you are adding knowledge and skills, you should be cognizant of what they are capable of, creating opportunities to use skills they have already mastered and experimenting with attempts that are just above their skill level to see if they are ready. This also means that the more you use the things your kids are interested in to connect and engage, the more likely they will see the relevance, real-world application, and fun of learning.

    How do we create an environment that balances appropriate developmental activities with academic integrity from the very beginning? By prioritizing two things: harnessing the natural development of children, and elevating the role of academics. You don’t need to become an expert on child development in order to understand the basic milestones of each age and use that knowledge to guide your home education. This fundamental knowledge can help you understand your kids better and guide activities and skill-building, creating an environment that is pro-academics AND learner-centered. Academics are simply the collected, evolving body of work that allow us to understand and engage in higher learning, society, and work, and they should be spoken about with perspective and integrity. As I say to my own kids, it doesn’t matter how you end up using that knowledge and those skills, what matters is that having them gives you choices.

    Is play really enough? This was never really the question because it was half the story. Looking at it so simplistically is misleading. When we are talking about education and development, combining play with guidance and skill-building that bolsters the specific milestones a child is experiencing encourages cognitive, social, and emotional growth while laying the foundation for more advanced knowledge and skills. It is the marathon of setting your child up for future learning goals and achievement.

    The clear point of all of this is that while play is extremely important, early childhood education has always been more nuanced. It’s vital that we highlight the significant role that adults and community play in the education of young children, and that the combination of intentional guidance with self-direction is not only the most developmentally appropriate but also produces the best outcomes. By understanding and adapting to the natural way young children learn best, we not only set them up for success, but strengthen our relationship and develop trust with our children, who benefit from our compassion, thoughtful strategy, and devotion to their specific needs.

    Next month, join me for Part 2 of this examination of play and academics, where I’ll take a deeper look at practical ways to foster learning through play, create an environment for academic integrity, and share resources for further exploration!

    This article was originally published in June 2019 in the SEA magazine and website.