All They Need Is Play

October 27, 2011 · 17 comments

in Development, Toddlers

Angelina writes: “I have been reading your blog articles as well as following on Facebook. I wish that I knew about your classes when my almost 2 year old was a baby! I was wondering if you could answer a question that I have been having or perhaps provide some insight. There are many blogs that I have been seeing raving about “Tot School” basically a semi-structured school time for young toddlers to preschoolers. I have done a few of the worksheets, art activities, and Montessori activities with her and while she enjoys it and has learned a lot, I can’t help but wonder if it’s too structured. What are your thoughts on early learning at this age? Could it be detrimental or am I maybe being too paranoid?”

playing outside - spring has arrived!

Dear Angelina,

First, thank you for reading, and for trusting me enough to ask for my opinion.You are  not being at all paranoid. In fact, you are being quite wise to question the value of a semi-structured school time that utilizes worksheets to teach your two year old. I hope you won’t mind that I chose to answer your question publicly, but it is one that comes up frequently, and my hope is that others will benefit from reading, and entering into the discussion.

I hadn’t heard of “Tot School” before, so I did a quick google search, and was dismayed by my findings: For those of us with older children who are homeschooled, we often place a lot of emphasis on them while the tots just *play.* This isn’t bad, it just didn’t work for me. Personally, I felt I was losing valuable 1 on 1 time with my precious tot that I had with my first child since he was the only one then. Tot School is the time each day I spend with my tot, exposing early learning skills through FUN play.”

Now, there are two aspects of this I love: The first is the idea of spending some time each day focused on your toddler, and the second is the idea of fun play. ( Play is what your daughter naturally does, and she doesn’t need to be shown how to do it well!)  But what I don’t agree with is “exposing (your child to) early learning skills through FUN play.”  Why? Because as soon as you define a ‘learning goal’, and begin to actively ‘teach’ your child through using worksheets, or introducing planned activities and materials that are to be used in a prescribed way to teach number and letter skills (for instance), your child is no longer engaging in free, experimental, self guided, creative play, and the learning is no longer her own.
It’s just not necessary to expose your daughter to “early learning skills” in a structured, artificial way, because your two year old is constantly learning everything she needs to know just by being involved in her daily routines, actively exploring her world at her own pace, and engaging in relationship with you, the rest of her family, and the children at your local playground. All she needs is play to learn what she needs to learn, and to see her through to the time in her life when she is ready for more structured learning and instruction (ideally, sometime after the age of seven).
This is only one story about one little girl, but it illustrates what I’ve observed any number of times, over a number of years, with a number of children. S. who is now six, and in the first grade, is reading fluently at about a fourth grade level. She loves reading and writing, and just got her first children’s dictionary last week, which she begged her Mom to allow her to sleep with. I learned S. could read one day last year when there was a book fair at the school library, and we went  to look at books together. She picked up an early reader, and said “Do you want me to read you a story from this book?” I (of course) said yes, and she sat down and proceeded to read the whole book in an animated way, without a hiccup. I was a bit shocked, to tell the truth. I asked her if  her teacher had read the book to her earlier that day, and she said “No Lisa, I just know how to read it.” That night, as I shared the story with her parents,  they told me they had just discovered S.’s reading abilities earlier in the week, when she announced that she wanted to read a new book of fairy stories to them at bedtime. They were similarly amazed by her ability and fluency.

Reading by the window

The interesting thing is, her parents and I never focused on teaching S. to read through any formal means, like through the use of flashcards or worksheets, or other structured learning activities. We are all avid readers, and she sees us reading and writing regularly. We also took her to the library once every couple of weeks from the time she was about a year old, and of course, we  cuddled up and read to her daily. Other than that, S.’s  “schedule” as a toddler was just hanging out playing with me or her parents, until she was three and a half,  and started to attend a totally play based preschool for a few hours every morning, where she chose to spend most of her time in the dress up corner, or outside on the monkey bars.
It’s ironic that you wrote to me yesterday because a sobering article was just published in Scientific American which addresses exactly the question you are asking. Entitled The Death Of Preschool, the byline reads: “The trend in early education is to move from a play-based curriculum to a more school-like environment of directed learning. But is earlier better? And better at what?” The article concludes, “Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains.” Yes, you read correctly, there is evidence to indicate early exposure to academics may actually damage developing brains. Not what any parent wants for their child, by any means.

…parents might be surprised to learn that “just playing” is in fact what nearly all developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts recommend for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life. Decades of research have demonstrated that their innate curiosity leads them to develop their social, emotional and physical skills independently, through exploration—that is, through play.

Angelina, all of my education, experience, and instincts combined, lead me to believe that all your little girl needs and what she will most benefit from right now, is your loving care and attention, and the opportunity to play freely (you might give her a ball or a doll, read her a book, or take her to the park)  “mucking about” to her heart’s content. It so happens that Janet Lansbury published a post yesterday that I can’t recommend highly enough, which also addresses your question. Janet shares 10 Secrets To Raising Less Stressed Kidsand gives lots of great ideas for what to do instead of “teaching” through structured activities. She also offers a great resource list for learning more.

I will continue to write here, and post links on Facebook that I hope will  inspire you to enjoy your daughter, and create an environment that will allow her to flourish through play. If you want to read even more, check out any of the books listed below, which were recommended in the Scientific American article, and happen to be ones I also regularly recommend:

Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer. Rodale Books, 2003.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love,and the Meaning of Life. Alison Gopnik. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Mind in the Making. Ellen Galinsky. Harper Paperbacks, 2010.


Wishing you and your little girl many happy (unstructured),  playful days together!



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Rachelle | TinkerLab October 27, 2011

Lisa — you have become one of my real-life heroes! Based on my learning about “learning” + my own anecdotal experiences with my own children, I couldn’t agree with you more. My daughter, who’s 3, only recently showed an interest in letters as symbols, but her language and vocabulary is on par with that of her 5-year old peers. We have magnet letters, a few alphabet games and puzzles, and innumerable alphabet books, but it’s never been something she’s gravitated toward…so I never pushed it. On the other hand, she has friends who naturally moved toward deciphering letters at age 2, on their own accord, and they’ve chosen to expand themselves in that area of their thinking. I have no concern whatsoever about my daughter’s ability to one day read, especially because her ability to reason and think critically (and for herself) are such strong personal traits. Bravo on a wonderful article.

jeanne October 28, 2011

Lisa – Bravo! Well said. Let there be Play!

Bence October 29, 2011

Tot school may be a good business, but most infants and toddlers can best learn on their own without an external push in a safe, simple setting.

Katey January 7, 2012

“as soon as you define a ‘learning goal’, and begin to actively ‘teach’ your child through using worksheets, or introducing planned activities and materials that are to be used in a prescribed way to teach number and letter skills (for instance), your child is no longer engaging in free, experimental, self guided, creative play, and the learning is no longer her own.”

I’m a little confused about the above paragraph. So what if he’s not engaging in “free experimental, self-guided, creative play.?” It’s one activity. The rest of his day he’s probably doing just that. What are we teaching by NOT providing planned activities? How to NOT learn from someone teaching us something new? Or am I being totally ignorant about this? I’m genuinely curious.. Are you saying it’s essentially “wrong” to present a toddler (say 2 years old) with a structured activity like, perhaps, doing a wooden puzzle or coloring with crayons or even matching like objects? What about teaching the ABC’s? What about “structured play”… similar to how Montessori does it with little activities on a tray that are kept on a shelf. How is that different than the tot school stuff? I’ve seen a lot of the tot school activities and it appears to be a way to “include” the toddlers in their older siblings homeschooling. Perhaps the toddler was showing interest in such a thing. What if the child wants to be given structure like that? (Or am I projecting there?) What if a child clearly enjoys a task that’s given to them? (For instance, I showed a 9 month old how to open a certain box and now he does it constantly, exploring it further, learning MORE about the box on his own…and he loves it…even though I “initiated” the learning for him. Where does something like that fit in? (“This is how you build a tower… one block on top of the other.” sort of thing.) I mean, I teach my 1 year olds the process of how to wash our hands together, is that something I should not do? Are you saying we really should leave it all to the toddlers to figure out everything on their own as they do in playing and exploring? I’m not disagreeing with anything you’ve said, in fact, I’m loving everything I’m reading about RIE, I’m just trying to grasp the dividing line between teaching too much and teaching nothing at all and then trying to figure out how to apply RIE to my own infant class. <3

Lisa January 19, 2012

Dear Katey,

Thank you for your questions. I love how much thought you are putting into this, and I’m thrilled to hear you are enjoying learning about RIE.Your questions deserve a whole post, but I want to very briefly address each one of them.

When it comes to play, I really believe that we don’t have to introduce any planned or adult directed play activities or directly “teach” an infant or toddler anything at all. I fully trust that children will learn in their own time, and own way, through their own explorations. I believe in preparing the play environment carefully, closely observing, and giving children feedback about what I see them doing, but otherwise I’m hands off. I don’t even show or hand babies toys before they notice them and choose to pick them up by themselves. By not providing planned activities, I am giving the baby the message that I absolutely trust him to be a self initiating, self motivated learner. I’m giving the message that I believe the baby knows better than I do what interests him, and what he’s ready to explore. I give him the message I trust he will learn what he needs to from his explorations. When someone “teaches” us something new, we learn what they think is interesting and important. We learn their version of how to do something, or we become frustrated because we can’t do it like they do it, because of course, we haven’t had the time and experience necessary to go through the process to find our own way to gain mastery. It’s not “wrong” to present a two year old with a puzzle, crayons, or objects to match, if you’ve noticed they are showing an interest, but I would place the puzzle, crayons, or matching game in the play environment along with many more open ended toys, and wait for the toddler to discover the activity. Then, instead of showing the child how to do the activity, I’d wait to see what the child’s ideas are about how to use the materials. All creativity comes from “not knowing” and not having preconceived ideas about how to use materials. Each child literally reinvents the world through their play. Children do eventually learn to match items, or stack blocks, because they are good observers, and as they learn about the properties of the objects in their world, observe others, and experiment themselves, they eventually happen upon these ideas themselves. In terms of Montessori materials, I might choose to include some in the environment, but would not give the child a “lesson” in how to use the materials. I don’t teach ABC’s, although I might choose to sing the alphabet song to children, read stories, and make up silly rhymes. In terms of providing “structure” for children, most babies and toddlers do seem to thrive when they know what to expect, and routines are consistent. There is freedom within limits. So, a child gets a sense of security from knowing and counting on predictable daily routines, and in a RIE play class, the child knows the class proceeds in a predictable rhythm, that he can always find certain toys in certain places, that a snack always occurs after about an hour, etc.

Now that I’ve mentioned snack, this seems to be a good time to mention that the caregiving times (eating, bathing, dressing, diapering are the ideal “teaching” times- what Magda Gerber called “wants something” quality time- where we ask for the child’s co-operation, and we “teach” certain social conventions through modeling, and the choices we give children. For instance, a child does not have to join in on snack, but if she does choose to join, we ask that she stay seated, wash her hands, wait her turn to pour water, etc. If the child chooses not to stay seated (for instance), then we don’t give her the snack. So, I do directly “teach” children about hand washing- because it is a self care routine. I teach first by washing my own hands before eating or after diapering, thus demonstrating that I believe it is important, and then by offering to help a very young infant to wash their hands with a warm washcloth before eating or after diapering. As the child grows, this becomes part of her routine, and I talk about the importance of washing hands so that I take good care of my body, don’t share germs, or ruin toys with sticky hands, etc. (sharing my values), and I encourage children to take a more and more active role in washing their own hands as they are able. But when it comes to showing a child how to open a box top, or stack blocks, I leave them to discover these things on their own when they are ready, and they do!

If you haven’t discovered Janet Lansbury’s site yet, I recommend you read every post she has written on play. You’re in for a real treat! Here’s a link: She includes video clips, and if I’m remembering correctly, there is even a post about waiting for the baby to “discover” how to open a jar. I want to leave you with one last link. This post was written just days after you left your comment, and it blew me away with how simply and beautifully it expressed what the author referred to as a Their Right to Play. It’s one of those things I wish I’d written, and I think it might really resonate for you, or at least lead you to further questions, which I hope you will keep asking!

Warmly, Lisa

Niccola May 29, 2015

Fascinating reading- I am inspired and reassured. Thanks

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