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Clare Higgins: The peril of ignoring children's need for play

In last Tuesday’s Gazette, two articles caught my eye. The first was entitled “School recess: health, social skills, brain power” about the disappearance of recess in schools and the negative effect that has on student achievement. And the second was an op-ed entitled “Culture of innovation path to long-term economic growth.” That essay, while primarily focused on the potential negative effects of the sequester, referenced the need for innovative and creative industries to spur economic growth.

Well, the building blocks for academic achievement and innovation are found not just on the playground but in early education settings across our country.

That’s why business leaders like Mara Aspinall from Genzyme and Paul O’Brien (former chair of New England Telephone) have joined with the early education community and others to advocate for high-quality early education in the Commonwealth. And these powerful partnerships on behalf of expanded early education have sprung up around the country.

I am not going to dwell on the role that high-quality early education plays in laying the foundation for literacy and numeracy. I am also not going to discuss the woefully inadequate compensation for early educators or the dismal state of early education facilities. The various methods for funding early education and the importance of parental choice in any early education plan are topics that will need to be fully discussed as we move towards, as President Obama declared in his State of the Union address, “making high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”

Instead, I want to talk about play. I want to talk about building with blocks and Legos; pretend play with dress-up clothes; messing around with water and sand; cutting with scissors; painting at the easel and drawing with markers. About picture books and puzzles, cleanup time and circle time, snacks and games on the playground. Cooking, taking walks and collecting bugs and rocks. Spending the day with a group of other kids, some bigger, some smaller, and with well-trained early educators who are focused on children.

Through those kinds of activities, children are learning things just as important as shapes and colors, letters and numbers. They are learning how to control their impulses, to plan with other children and adults, to transition their attention from one activity to another and to focus on the task at hand. These critical skills are commonly grouped under the term self-regulation. They are as essential as the alphabet to a child’s ability to be a grade level reader by third grade. They are also the skills that are necessary for success in school, on the job and in life.

Play is the way we learn how to be social beings. In the early education classroom, with the guidance of early educators, children playing together learn how to collaborate, solve problems and settle differences. Children engaged in imaginative or pretend play are trying on the roles that they see around them: mommy, daddy, baby, store clerk, firefighter and teacher. This kind of play helps children understand the critical idea that their thoughts are different from others and helps to develop empathy. And an important benefit of pretend play is its role in enhancing creativity.

I think we ignore play at our peril. The connections between play and self-regulation, academic achievement, collaboration, creativity and empathy are clear. And the barriers to play are ever-present too. There’s the TV that’s always on; the toys that tell kids how they should play with them; the iPad and video games. Open-ended play and the unstructured time necessary for that play have become harder to come by in our hurried and over-scheduled world.

So I welcome the focus on early education. Our young children need early education settings that are accessible and affordable. Children need to be read to and to learn mathematical concepts including counting. And children need well-trained early educators, for that is the critical component in high-quality early education. Of course those teachers need to be compensated with wages and benefits that will allow them to stay in the field.

This is an exciting time for the early education field. We have an opportunity to create a system that will dramatically improve early education for young children across our country as well as right here in the Commonwealth. And let’s not forget the importance of play!

Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

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