Inclusive Resource on Sensorimotor Child Development for Parents and Teachers

Elizabeth McKenna and The Power of Play in Learning

An expert in the field of early childhood education, Elizabeth McKenna, joins us to discuss essential elements for success at school.  She has incorporated play as a core ingredient to the early childhood programs she has developed.  Here are some of her thoughts regarding play in education:

In my twenty-five years in the field of education, I have been witness to the growth of young children becoming intellectually curious, lifelong adult learners! How? I believe it is the result of a powerful and formative education based on experiential learning.

IMG_2239In school, when we talk about core knowledge and 21st century skills, we are talking about skills, characteristics and qualities that help a child to build confidence, creativity and independent thinking. We know  that children need to be taught the core skills in reading, writing and math and we know that children are most responsive when learning is placed in context to the child.

Learning must have meaning and therefore children must participate in the process. Children need to be taught how to ask good questions, to analyze and synthesize information, and to solve problems. They must be given the time to play with numbers and letters, time to play with others and time to play with ideas. This kind of learning not only supports rote memorization but also builds a deep and rich knowledge base from which to grow.

Dr. Stuart Brown, Director of the National Institute for Play states, “Our ability to play enables us to innovate, problem-solve, and be happy, smart, resilient human beings.”

Long-term studies under way indicate that play-based learning with playful teachers heightens overall long term performance.

20091107_0161In the home children must be given similar opportunities to play.

Interested to hear how children perceived their own play, I set out to ask the question, “If you were at home and you had a short period of time to do whatever you wanted…what you would do?” As I listened to the children, ages three through seven, I was overwhelmed by the simplicity of their responses. Play was the central theme! Establishing spaces, building relationships and caring for others were common threads in the children’s thoughts about play. The transformation of space is inherent in the imaginary play of young children:

  • “Playing pirates in the pirate ship in my room”
  • “Playing with my toys”
  • “Playing with my football uniform and going outside”
  • “Playing on the swings at the playground”
  • “Playing with my frisbee and playing tag”

The “play” ground and “play” room represent spaces where children can contextualize experiences that help them to make better sense of their world.

Developing relationships are vital to the child’s ability to become socialized. Responses like:

  • “Playing Hi Ho Cherry-i-o with my mom”
  • “Going outside with my dad”
  • “Playing anything with my sister and fishing at the pond with my brother”

demonstrate valuable moments for the child because they  establish relationships built on trust. Another common thread was a human need to care:

  • “I‘d be with my dogs”
  • “Play with my bird”
  • “Go outside and walk my bunny”

Children gain tremendous satisfaction and independence from the experience of caring for an animal (real or stuffed).

The children feel empowered and gain a sense of security when they can imitate situations, make decisions independent of others and experiment with different roles and voices.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlay is their work and we must not deny them of these experiences by structuring their play time. At this early level of development, the child’s work is his/her play! In reflecting on the words of the children, I was reassured by the return to what could be referred to now as “old fashioned” play. In a culture so enveloped by the latest technological advancements, there was not one mention of the electronic screen: no video, no TV and no computer.

Children must have the chance to become actively engaged in the construction and design of their three dimensional play. It is my hope that these young children are given the time to explore, to create and to wonder about the world in which they live.

“The most creative force at work today is a child at play.”

– Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget

betsy_head_shot-3 More about Elizabeth McKenna:

Elizabeth McKenna served as Head of Early Childhood at  New Canaan Country School and most recently Head of the Lower School at The Town School in New York.   She currently provides consultation and coaching to a variety of educational institutions. An exciting recent project involved the New York City Board of Education, where she provided training and coaching to teachers in preparation for the ambitious launch of the city wide four year old preschool program.

Elizabeth has over twenty year experience in pedagogical innovation in independent schools and has studied the translation of pedagogy into international education. Her expertise includes teacher training, development of educational space, and humanizing the experience of educators and students, on which she has lectured and taught. She has lectured widely on the subject and has brought joy and excitement to the lives of countless children and their families.

Elizabeth has Created a Website:  Educational



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  1. toyin toyin
    February 20, 2015    

    thanks so much i have a four year old toddler who has delayed milestone ,we live Nigeria and really doing everything to help develop his brain and coordination any more tips would be appreciated

    • Jill Mays Jill Mays
      April 7, 2015    

      Delve into the sensory processing section…lots of movement and sensory play.

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  1. The Power of Play in Learning | Educational Spark on December 15, 2014 at 2:51 am

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