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Mainewhile: Play is serious business – Portland Press Herald –

Remember when getting ready for a new school year meant a new backpack and a fresh pack of pencils? Man, I miss that.

Last year we were figuring out how to manage returning mid-pandemic. We navigated cohorts, figured out Zoom and became experts on different types of sanitizer.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

This year, we are figuring out how to return mid-pandemic … again. We’ve learned more, we know more, we’ve made a lot of changes. Even so, there are still a lot of worries. We worry about kids staying healthy, about the need for peer socialization, about sports and about them falling behind academically.

All of these concerns are legitimate, and it is clear that even when the adults disagree on the best way forward, everyone wants what’s best for the kids.

The good news is, “falling behind” is a relative term. We set the measures. Just as we would adjust our expectations for the arrival time of a boat that encountered an unexpected storm at sea, we can adjust our expectations for what this year will be. The really great news is, we know a lot about how kids (and grown-ups) learn, and it all boils down to a few essentials: relationships, curiosity and play.

Our culture has a habit of placing a heavy emphasis on work. We praise a “good work ethic,” we talk about “working hard” and we tend to default to it as a measure of success. What we fail to remember is that play is vital. Not only as a means of joy and relaxation, but as the way in which we actually learn. We are hardwired to learn through play. This isn’t just me talking, this is research.

Look to noted theorists and psychologists Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey and Jean Piaget for starters. These notable gents really did the deep dive into how humans learn, and play is at the core. As Piaget said – later echoed by the fantastic Mr. Rogers – “Play is the work of childhood.”

Another hero of education is Frank Oppenheimer. Building upon the knowledge of how humans learn, he created the world-famous Exploratorium in San Francisco with the intent “… to address two fundamental human needs: curiosity and confidence in one’s ability to understand things. It is a teacher’s job to get a student ‘unstuck’ … to intrigue the student and then to discover what the student already understands and build on it.”

Winnie O’Leary, an educator of note, adds, “It is in the context of play that children test out new knowledge and theories … (and) gain mastery over their environment, promoting focus and concentration. It also enables the child to engage in the flexible and higher-level thinking processes deemed essential for the 21st century learner. These include inquiry processes of problem solving, analyzing, evaluating, applying knowledge and creativity.”

Play is serious business.

I put all this research out there because I know it’s hard to trust in the idea of something fun also being something productive. We are trained to think otherwise. It’s sort of like being told ice cream is good for you. But in this case, we’re in luck: It’s real.

Play not only reduces anxiety, but also builds competence and sparks curiosity, providing the foundation for continued learning and lifelong skills. Play really is the key to engaged, meaningful learning and cognitive development.

So here’s to a year helping our kids catch up by slowing down, reconnecting and lots of play!

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