Learning and Play

Researcher studies children’s unstructured playtime.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Never underestimate the learning power of play.

This is one of the findings emerging from Amy Parks’ ongoing research of young children in a public school setting:  that children lose valuable learning opportunities when unstructured play is reduced or eliminated in favor of more time in the classroom. 

“I think a lot of public school systems fail to see the importance of play,” says Parks,  assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Georgia. “Right now, play is under-valued and lot of that is because of top-down pressures over standards and testing.”

Parks’ research focuses on equity issues in mathematics education in early childhood, particularly among minorities.  “I’d been really concerned about the way research has been talking about minority kids,” she says.  “Their work is often framed in trying to figure out what’s wrong with these kids. It’s very deficit-oriented and not at all what I experienced as a classroom teacher.

“I found the children eager to learn, and their families were supportive and curious,” she adds.  “So when I got to academia, I thought it was weird to read all these studies about kids not being prepared, or not being able to solve problems.”

So she designed her own research project with a different approach.  She is following the same group of 14 young minority children for three years, starting in pre-school, to see how they learn mathematics, both in the formal classroom setting as well as informally in school, and at home.  “Just sitting there, looking at what is happening in their natural surroundings, you can find things that surprise you,” she says.

The children attend a pre-school through 12th grade public school in rural Georgia, where the student body--the school has a total of 300--is almost entirely African American. Parks is making videotapes of the children inside and outside of the classroom, and currently is finishing the second year. The members of the group she is following will enter first grade in the fall.

Parks is concerned that formal curricula, even when good, now takes up space once devoted to play.  “I want them to preserve time for kids to explore on their own through play,” she says.  “There is a kind of problem solving that happens in play that is unpredictable.  Play supports learning in ways that structured tasks cannot.  It’s not that I don’t support structured tasks; I do, but I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction.”

She hopes her research will prove how important play is to developing problem-solving skills, and in other critical ways.

“We already know that playing with blocks introduces math concepts, but I also see mathematics coming up in the doll corner, for example,” she says.  “Play in the doll corner helps develop language skills, but hasn’t been seen as a site for mathematics development. But one of the things I’ve seen is girls folding up doll clothes, which gives them a chance to explore lines of symmetry and halves, for fractions.  One of the things we did this year was to show videos of the pre-K playtime to the kindergarten teacher, who said: ‘Wow. If I’d known this was going on, I could’ve used this while teaching these concepts.””

Parks is conducting her research under a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, which she received in 2009. The award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. She is receiving $521,972 over five years.

In thinking about past educational research focused on minority children, Parks also is interested in finding out whether children’s comfort level with researchers may play a role on study outcomes.  For example, could the fact that a researcher is white, as Parks is, increase the anxiety level of a minority child and affect the child’s performance?