The U.N.’s International Day of Play vs. “An Inhuman World” - Early Learning Nation

The U.N.’s International Day of Play vs. “An Inhuman World”

Photos courtesy Neighborhood Villages

The United Nations has declared June 11 to be the first annual International Day of Play, calling it “a unifying moment at global, national and local levels to elevate the importance of play.”

With everything going on in the world, why does the U.N. care about play?

The simple answer is that the world needs play more than ever. As critic Peter Brooks writes in Seduced by Story, “Without play, we risk being overwhelmed by an inhuman world.”

To understand more fully, start by thinking of play as not only an educational tool but also a human rights issue. In 1989, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child asserted

“that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life. They shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.”

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Early Learning Nation magazine’s Seasons of Play series has celebrated a number of innovative programs dedicated to restoring and expanding play in the lives of young children, through strategies like playgrounds, convenings, teacher training and Playful Learning Landscapes. Here are three more playful enterprises to ponder:

A New Curriculum from Neighborhood Villages. In their A Pedagogy of Play: Supporting Playful Learning in Classrooms and Schools (Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2023), Ben Mardell and colleagues write,

“When people play, they are engaged, relaxed and challenged—states of mind highly conducive to learning. Through play, children and adults try out ideas, test theories, experiment with symbol systems, better understand social relations, take risks, and reimagine the world. As they lead their play, players develop agency. Exploring the unknown, they cultivate their imaginations and learn to deal with uncertainty. Joyfully playing with others, they develop empathy.”

Inspired by this research, Neighborhood Villages recently launched a new play-based curriculum in partnership with the LEGO Foundation and Boston Public Schools. “In early childhood, play is learning,” says Binal Patel, chief program officer. “This first-of-its-kind curriculum, called Learning through Exploration, is a resource for educators, centering an anti-bias approach as well as developmentally appropriate practice for toddlers.” In the first two weeks, the curriculum garnered over 300 downloads from 20 states and five countries.

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Invitations to Learning in Ontario. The Government of Ontario issued Play-Based Learning in a Culture of Inquiry in 2016, but Nadia Kenisha Bynoe and Angelique Thompson, former Early Reading Coaches for the Toronto District School Board, noticed that young children were being deprived of play. Their new book, The Gift of Playful Learning, encourages educators to honor playful approaches to curriculum and learning. “Play allows children to show what they know,” says Thompson. “It supports different learners because it provides entry points for them to make their thinking visible.”

Bynoe says Gloria Ladson-Billings’s work on culturally relevant pedagogy was a major influence on the book, which recommends presenting children’s books on subjects children can relate to—alongside materials they can manipulate—as Invitations to Learning. “Loose parts,” she adds, “allow children the liberty to share their theories in ways that are not stifled.”

Taking the Early Childhood Ethos and Moving It Up. “Preschool teachers and museum educators are the kings and queens of the new universe,” proclaims Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. (She’s also chief science advisor and co-founder of Playful Learning Landscapes, which are built in classrooms, communities and the digital space). Referring to a huge foundation that recently launched an initiative to create more assessments for young children, she maintains, “We adults are so stressed that we put the stress on our kids, and I don’t think we should take it anymore.”

Hirsh-Pasek’s playful learning colleague, Andres Bustamente (Assistant Professor, University of California Irvine School of Education), says, “In California, there is a rapid expansion of Transitional Kindergarten for 4-year-olds, which is bringing preschool into the elementary school system, but we don’t want to start treating preschoolers like older kids. In fact, we want to do the opposite, taking the early childhood ethos and moving it up. Our current work comes from an intentional move by the LEGO Foundation to start in kindergarten and go through fourth grade. And the leads of the project are all early childhood people.”

A Global Mindset Shift

Internationally, the play deficit is a real threat. According to international surveys conducted by LEGO, 59% of children would like to play more than they do now; and 79% of children would like to play more with their parents or caregiver.

👉 ‘Let children play’: The Educational Message from Across Europe (The Guardian)

We intuitively know that play is an essential part of childhood. Thanks to ample research, we also know that play supports cognitive development, social skills and all the skills we want our future citizens to possess. And yet in the U.S., Canada and Europe, play is disappearing from the lives of too many children. The reasons are complicated, but a lot of it has to do with the pressure governments feel to equip future workers to compete in a changing world.

Among other factors, standardized testing both arises from this pressure and intensifies it. Guy Roberts-Holmes and Peter Moss’s 2021 book Neoliberalism and Early Childhood Education argues that our economic system reduces early childhood to

“the status of becoming, to being a transition stage en route to an ultimate destination of achieved adulthood by which time she or he will have assumed the requisite identity: a self-mastering, self-interested and responsibilised subject; and informed and calculating consumer; and [quoting Margaret Stuart’s 2011 doctoral dissertation] a ‘resilient, compliant, skilled worker able to grow the nation’s wealth.’”

The authors contend that thanks to this trend, called ‘schoolification’ in Europe, “Early years education is at high risk of becoming a narrow and arid, utterly predictable undertaking, devoid of creativity, excitement, wonder and joy.”

👉 Why Play Is Serious Work for Children and Adults (Brookings Institution)

Hirsh-Pasek points out that before there was an International Day of Play, there was UNESCO’s global Happy Schools Initiative, which advocates for “a transformative reform of education and a paradigm shift to put happiness at the core of education policy and practice,” recognizing happiness “as both a means to and a goal of quality learning.”

“The science is clear,” Hirsh-Pasek summarizes. “Learning needs to be active, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive, iterative and joyful. And if we could rekindle these qualities in ourselves, I think we would see what it would do for our children, their academic health, their social health and their mental health.”

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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