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You’ve got everything organized and ready for Monday. Pencils, paper, glue, erasers, maybe a protractor for good measure — all the implements of a proper education. You’ve put a great deal of thought into how best to organize your “classroom” and you have some lesson plans up your sleeve now that school is out for the foreseeable future.

I applaud your efforts to fill the gap in your child’s education now that the coronavirus has upended your family’s normal routine.

And I’m going to stop you right there.

Because all your plans, though well-intentioned, are completely unnecessary.

There’s no need to panic. Child development experts want you to know: You can make the transition to homeschooling quite adeptly by allowing your kids to lead. The best part? The responsibility for “educating” your child doesn’t fall solely on you. In fact, with a little preparation, following your child’s lead and sharing control of educational choices puts learning where it belongs — quite literally, in your child’s hands.

Play is a child’s best education

If you’re like a lot of parents right now, you may find yourself jumping both feet first into something you haven’t thought about much since, well — since you yourself were in school. And like a lot of parents who find themselves suddenly responsible for their child’s “formal education,” you may tend to fall back on what you know — that is, “school” as you remember (or imagine) it: children at desks and the teacher standing at the front of the class, drilling them with info on a chalkboard and some kind of pointer and glasses that tightly pinch her scrunched-up nose.

This is what’s been called the “grammar of schooling,” and like the grammar of language, these are the “rules” that define our understanding of “school” even if we never give them much thought. Classroom teachers, to be sure, give a lot of their time to the arrangement of desks and lesson plans and standardized tests.

Fortunately for you, your classroom isn’t restricted by four walls and your lesson plans are free and all around you as long as you keep in mind one very simple rule: Children learn best through play.

Play: how memories are made

Think about it. Your child hears the trills of the spring’s first toads and asks, “Mommy, what’s that?” Maybe you don’t know! You could scour the internet or a library for an answer, or you could take an option not always available to teachers with 30 kids in a classroom: You can learn by direct investigation, or, in other words, through play — by allowing kids the freedom to make choices and manipulate materials and find out for themselves the answers to important questions.

It’s called play-based learning, and seasoned educators and parents alike know that it’s how a child learns best. With that in mind, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends these “five essentials to meaningful play” for those backyard investigations and field trips to the pond and other memory-making activities.

  1. Children make their own decisions.

    Allowing kids freedom to make their own choices (and mistakes!) is the heart of play-based learning. Parents and teachers can help by providing lots of open-ended materials for children to explore and get creative with. If you suddenly find yourself with a house full of kids on short notice, you can take comfort in the fact that the best and most widely available open-ended materials are also free and right outside your door. While a plastic toy rocket ship is often just a plastic toy rocket ship, the natural world provides infinite materials, from sticks to stones to pine cones, for children to discover and explore and use to make creative choices.

  2. Children are intrinsically motivated.

    Famed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to play as the “work” that children do to make sense of their world. Kids have an internal guide — a natural impulse — to play as a form of discovery. Not sure how to satisfy restless children on short notice? Ask them what they’re curious about!

  3. Children become immersed in the moment.

    We remember the “good old days” of biking around our neighborhood and late evening baseball games in the backyard not because we’re simply victims of nostalgia but because we’re recalling the most formative memories from our childhood — memories solidified precisely because they were formed when, as children, we were immersed in our play and lost awareness of our surroundings and became focused completely on what we were doing. It is in that immersion that memories are formed — the kinds of memories that last a lifetime.

  4. Play is spontaneous, not scripted.

    Children are flexible in their play. Sometimes they’ll make a plan and stick to it; other times, their play will evolve as new information emerges. The “unknown” nature of play allows children to develop valuable life skills, both flexibility and persistence. Parents and teachers should certainly play cooperatively with children, but should resist the urge to make decisions for the child’s play. As children encounter challenges within their grasp, gentle guidance from a trusted adult (or “scaffolding”) can lead them to the next stage of their development.

  5. Play is enjoyable.

    What’s the difference between a visit to a swamp and completing a worksheet on frog habitats? The former is fun, the latter, less so. And that difference is all that matters to a child who is exploring her own world, because it’s this difference that determines whether a memory is relegated to the nether reaches of her brain and forgotten, or experienced as a novel — and therefore memorable — event.

Whether you’re homeschooling by necessity or choice, or just interested in how you can keep children learning on weekends and summer breaks, now is the time for active, play-based learning, and that can come in many forms. Thank heaven you’re not restricted by state standards and testing requirements. When a child is making choices and doing something challenging, with the proper adult guidance and scaffolding, they’re learning. So make granola in the kitchen, learn to play dominoes, build a bridge, start that long-term project you don’t ever seem to have enough time for, and get outside for some all day recess!

You don’t have to wait until Monday!

Resources

Nell, Marcia L., & Drew, Walter F. Five Essentials to Meaningful Play. https://www.naeyc.org/our-work/families/five-essentials-meaningful-play

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

Covid-19: Tips for When School Is Closed

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Type of Play for Development

Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play