Colleges complain that today's students have not been taught how to think. Perhaps our modern lack of appreciation for children's play is to blame.
Current research tells us that not only does play exercise imagination and inventiveness, it advances language development and conflict resolution. Through play children learn to handle their emotions--fear, anger, jealousy, greed, pride, impatience, etc. They learn how to get along and cooperate with each other as equals. Play has been directly linked to the development of executive function in the brain--our ability to set, plan, and reach goals, as well as the ability to self-regulate.
Free play is so much more than a grocery store set up in a math area. Free play is unstructured, self-created and self-directed. A child who knows how to play is overflowing with creative force. They enter the classroom, look around and many things speak to them. In contrast, children that have been separated from this inner force of play look around and few things speak to them. They wait passively to be given an activity to do. This doing may be enjoyable, but is missing the inner-to-outer component found in self-created imaginative play, the passionate joy of co-creating a world.
How do we feed and support children's play at Ziji? Lots of stories of course, plenty of time and space, and a richly prepared environment. But mostly by getting out of our student's way--not interrupting, being present but not overly involved, not being too available so the child stays an active participant. A mixed age group of children can play so deeply and creatively--like the neighborhood tribes some of us remember from childhood. The older children provide the younger children with inspiration and scaffolding. The younger children provide enthusiasm and attentiveness--a rich situation for all!