The Value of Play at Touchstone Community School

Dancing, painting, cooking. Exploring leaves, cracked corn, a mystery bag. Dressing up in costumes, building with blocks, inventing with junk. Creating with letters, writing a story, making a math pizza.

Welcome to pre-K for 3.5 to 4-year-olds at Touchstone Community School! Today, like every day, begins and ends with play.

“For the four-year-olds, the focus every single day, all day long, is that they have plenty of time to play,” reports Sheryl Harrow, Head Teacher of Touchstone’s Early Childhood Program. “They have opportunities to run, to jump, to exercise all those muscles, and they have the space to do it.”

“Having children sit down at four years of age and do worksheets is not going to help them — It’s pretty hard to attend if you’re antsy and you haven’t gotten to the point where you can relax enough and sit and listen,” Sheryl explains. “They need to be out running, they need to be out climbing and pulling themselves up. They need What_is_play_llto use those muscles that they’re then going to have to be able to use to sit quietly, and to draw and write.” More important, though, this play is crucial to children’s social-emotional development.

“People think of play as frivolous or trivial,” writes psychology professor Peter Gray in his recent book titled Free to Learn. However, “the enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality. […] When children are free to play, they play naturally at the ever-advancing edges of their mental and physical abilities.” Further, “playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”[2]

“When you’re playing, you’ve got all that imaginative play going on,” Sheryl explains. “Plus, you’ve got to figure out how to work through problems with your peers.”

In fact, Sheryl guides the class’s daily experiences so that her children interact with each other and work through problems. “When there’s a conflict,” she says, “it’s so important to take the time and help the kids work through those issues, because they’re going to need those skills as they get older. I mean, even going into the next class, when they work together on math problems, when they work together on a project, if they’re doing a mural together, a piece of art—you’ve got to be able to talk to that person.”

This approach, so fundamental to Touchstone’s instructional practice at all age levels, bears impressive fruit over time. Sheryl notes that as children move to later classes, other teachers remark that “‘the kids who come from [Sheryl’s] class know how to come to a meeting. They know how to participate. They know how to play with each other. They know how to take turns.’”

“Unfortunately,” Sheryl observes, “outside of Touchstone, there are so many schools right now where children are getting less and less time to play, even though the research supports the importance of it. And at the same time, you have people out in the corporate world saying they want innovative, creative thinkers.”

Indeed, Gray echoes this lament: “What a crime it is that we deprive children of play in school, and then we expect them to think hypothetically and be creative!”

See how Sheryl incorporates play into her pre-K class

Watch a day in the life of Sheryl’s class as she describes Touchstone’s philosophy

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[1] Huizinga, J. (1955; first German edition published in 1944). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.; Rubin, K.H., Fein, C.G., & Vandenberg, B. (1983). Play. In P.H. Mussen & E.M. Hetherington (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, vol. 4, 693–774. New York: Wiley.; Smith, P.K. (2005). Play: Types and functions in human development. In B.J. Ellis & D.F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind. New York: Guildord.; Sylva, K., Bruner, J., & Genova, P. (1976). The role of play in the problem solving of children 3–5 years old. In J. Bruner, A. Jolly, & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play, 244–257. New York: Basic Books.; Vygotsky, L. (1933; 1978). The role of play in development. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S.Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 92–104. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Gray, P. (2013). Free to play: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York: Basic Books.