Shael Polakow-Suransky & Nancy Nager: Playful Classrooms are Our Smartest Investment

“It has long been noticed that the smartest mammals—primates, cetaceans, elephants, and carnivores—are the most playful,” anthropologist and neuroscientist Melvin Konner wrote in his epic work, The Evolution of Childhood.  But as all early educators know: these are tough times on the playing fields.


The work of children is disappearing, the casualty of trickle-down education reform policies that have foist worksheets, drill skills, and standardized “bubble” tests on our youngest students.  This process is by no means a new phenomenon,  but the pace has accelerated mightily in the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  And the damage to the developmentally appropriate practice that early childhood holds dear has been well-documented.

It’s always been tough to convey what this practice looks like to untrained, skeptical eyes, of which, alas, there are many. How and what are they learning, everyone wants to know. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the new president of Bank Street College of Education—a bastion of progressive theory and practice—and Nancy Nager, a longtime member of the school’s faculty, have done a masterful job of describing “what it looks like” in their essay in the New York Times.  Here are some snippets, but read the rest:

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.

The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).

I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy camper today.


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