This July I have had the opportunity to work mornings at a summer camp for Toddlers and Preschoolers. I have been off of the “front lines” of the field for the past year or so and so I have really enjoyed this opportunity to get my hands dirty, to play and to develop meaningful relationships with the children. We have had a number of twos and almost-twos who have been attending camp in order to get them ready for nursery school in the fall, and it’s been amazing to see how much they’ve learned and grown in just one month. Some of our quietest children in our first week are becoming our loudest in the last week and we’re all rejoicing in that. They’ve also learned a lot about regulating their bodies and their emotions and of course about negotiating social situations and developing relationships with their peers. It’s been an exciting summer.
We’ve enjoyed a lot of messy play with painting, playdough, goop and even some paper maché. We have dug in the dirt and ran through the sprinklers. We have ignored or changed the schedule to accommodate more time to run around in the gym or even just more time in our free play explorations. As my co-worked said when we started “we can do anything we want – it’s camp!” That really has me thinking, because I don’t think what we’ve been doing at camp is any different than most early childhood programs. There seems to be this idea that we can throw away the curriculum and just play because it’s camp, however isn’t play the curriculum of early childhood? Shouldn’t the mess and the fun be what early childhood programs are all about? We seem to get stuck on this idea that learning is something that has to be planned for, that has to be accommodated in our schedules, but for young children (and those of us who are young at heart) learning happens ALL THE TIME. We don’t need to schedule learning, we just need to open our eyes and our ears and we will see learning happening all around us. Children are intrinsically motivated to learn and when we give them opportunities to explore in the ways that they want to explore with the things that they want to explore, learning will occur. As Early Childhood Educators, our job is to notice and support this learning, and to facilitate it through the environment, materials and opportunities we provide.
In our early childhood environments, everyday should be like camp. We should be flexible in our schedules, making allowances for extra time to free play or to run off excess energy. Messy play should be a daily occurrence. Our focus should be on learning through play, not academic curriculum. If we’re worried about children learning letters or numbers and shapes, we need to remember that these things are part of our everyday life and children will show interest in them when they need them, like wanting to know how tall their tower is or wanting to write a word on their drawing. As we all start to get our heads around a new school year, I hope that this year our focus will be on play, because that’s where learning happens.