Highlights from the Early Childhood Education Field

Mr. Rogers: "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."

This quote stood out to me as a recurring theme of the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children Conference that I attended in late January. This annual conference brings together early childhood educators from all over the Chicago area and from all different fields- preschool teachers, day care instructors, in-home caretakers, early childhood experts, and educators from cultural institutions like Lincoln Park Zoo. And this year play was the topic on everyone’s minds. Attendees were looking for new ways to inspire and encourage play, ways to connect with nature in the city, and how to communicate the benefits of play to parents. Since we already have this great place for sharing information and inspiration, I thought I would give you some highlights from the conference.

In a session about the power of play from birth to five years old, the presenters discussed the impact of play on cognitive development. One of the most astounding facts about child development to me is that a baby born at full term has all of its organs basically fully developed and ready to function except the brain. The brain is only at 25% of its full weight/growth at birth. By age 3 it’s up to 80% and by age 5 it’s up to 90%. So from birth to age 3, the brain triples in weight “by producing billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, between these cells.” (ZerotoThree. Org).

In order for the brain to develop in a healthy way, babies and toddlers need enriching experiences and environments in which to play and explore the world around them to create all of those cells and synapses. An interesting visual example of this rapid growth comes from observations made at a nursery school of children ranging in age from 18 months to 4 years. The researchers watched children at various ages and clocked their movements around different stations in the room during a seven minute time span. At 18 months and at 2 years, the children move quickly from station to station and visit nearly every station in the room during the seven minutes. As they get older, their movements around the room slow down as the brain is becoming more fully developed and children’s capacity for focusing increases. So even in our LEAP age range of 2-3 year olds, the children vary widely in their developmental abilities and needs, which is another reason that a free play-based class like LEAP is able to meet the differing needs of toddlers so well.

A few other fantastic sessions that I attended discussed art with nature and fostering imaginative play with objects and spaces. As nature play is the main focus of LEAP, we are always looking to incorporate natural materials in different and creative ways, so I’m excited to try out some new ideas from this conference such as story stones and stone faces (photos below) into upcoming LEAP activities.

Fostering imaginative play and exploration is also a big emphasis for us, and one session really delved into the topic of representational versus abstract objects and spaces in play in a cool way. It helped to reinforce our methods for supporting creative play and offered some new ideas as well. We use only a limited number of representational objects, objects such as plastic animals or fake food, because those items are often limited in what they can become during play. Instead we utilize mostly abstract objects such as blocks, baskets, rocks, and fabric that can become many more things during play and are very open-ended.

Knowing how important learning is to developing healthy and happy children, Lincoln Park Zoo educators are always working to expand our understanding of child development, follow and improve on best practices in education, and to provide your children with enriching learning environments and experiences. Part of that mission is also to offer parents and caregivers with any tools and opportunities that we can to help you connect them to nature and to remember that ‘play is really the work of childhood.’

-Becky Lyons

Other cognitive development resources to check out: The Urban Child Institutea great Growing Brains article, Born Learning