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?
“It’s possible that once we start introducing differences between the interviewer and the child in terms of race and class, some children may show more anxiety than others, but we just don’t know,” she says. “When they don’t perform well, we don’t know whether it’s because the person doing the testing looks like me, and whether that’s producing anxiety.”
As a result, “we need to pay attention to gaze, gesture and body posture to see how comfortable they are, and how credible the interview is,” she adds. “If there are high levels of anxiety, particularly in younger children, it’s impossible to believe I’m seeing what they really can do mathematically.”
Education is social, contextual and political; thus, researchers should begin reporting the race and ethnicity of the children and teachers they are studying, and of themselves, she says. “We need to be naming these demographic identifiers,” she says.
In preschool, Parks filmed the children both at play and during formal lessons in the classroom. This year, with the children in kindergarten, Parks and her team videoed the children only during their school lessons. Last year, when the children were in preschool, and this year, while they are in kindergarten, the research team also sponsored “math nights” for parents and children, with a variety of activities.
“This year, we sent activities home and asked parents to tape record their children and take photographs with a disposable camera,” she says. “During the third year, we will go into home and do interviews with the parents about what goes on in the home with mathematics.”
Parks’ team is building video case studies for use in teacher education and development, “to help beginning teachers identify mathematics at play, and in lessons--what helps and what doesn’t,” Parks says.
But there is something else, just as important for Parks. “It’s the equity piece of trying to change the conversation in the research community about what kids can do generally, and what minority kids can do in particular,” she says.
Learning and Play
Researcher studies children’s unstructured playtimeSeptember 10, 2012 RSS Feed Print
By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation