Playful Learning

The AIMS Center Research Division’s early math team is currently interviewing and videotaping 3 and 4 year olds in order to illustrate the developmental stages in learning to count that researchers have identified. We are specifically interested in collecting video clips that illustrate a child’s path in moving from one stage to the next. We plan to use these video clips as authentic classroom artifacts that can support teachers as they begin to notice children’s thinking and decide how to respond.

The ways in which children develop a number word sequence and learn to count are fascinating. As we have seen in our interviews, children often do not interpret counting tasks in the same way that we adults do. We may prepare what we think is a very clear counting task, yet when we engage children with that task, we find that they see it as a very different kind of task. This serves to illustrate the importance of following the child’s initiated activity. Tasks involving play challenge us to follow the child’s lead, to use imagination and visualization alongside children, and to talk about things that the child initiates. Teachers serve a crucial role as they develop a space in the classroom for mathematical play and learn to mathematize child-initiated activity within play contexts.

In her recent article published in the Washington Post, Nancy Carlsson-Paige wrote: “There are also impressive numbers of young children who do manage to adapt to overly academic programs. But even for them, this comes at a cost. They lose out on all the benefits of play-based learning. Instead they learn facts and skills by rote practice; they learn that there are right and wrong answers, that the teacher defines what is learned. They learn compliance. They don’t get to discover that they can invent new ideas. They don’t get to feel the sense of empowerment found in playful learning.” We’ve talked about the importance of play on the AIMS blog before and we’ve discussed the danger of overly academic programs for early childhood. As policies and academic practices press into early childhood education, we’ll continue to advocate for play-based contexts that are child-initiated and that lead to meaningful mathematical learning.          

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