With play becoming the central part of Quebec’s new Preschool Program, understanding the role of play in early childhood development is essential for educators. I recall in my early years, play usually entailed being thrown outside and told to “go outside, get some fresh air and play with your friends.” I would go outside to ride bikes, role-play scenarios of superheroes or army dudes, play street games like skip rope or hopscotch, build structures in the woods, play in puddles or on huge rocks, and so on… My friends and I never said “I don’t know what to do” or ” this is soooo boring” rather we engaged with our environment to its’ fullest, and actually had to get hauled in to eat dinner and get ready for bed. Now that I have kids of my own…oh how things have changed. It is almost like we have forgotten what play is, and why it is so important in the development of our littlest learners. So when the new play-based preschool program was launched, we needed help. A new DEEN sub-committee was launched called PLAY to help support our educators that got the great privilege of teaching this new cycle program. Children aged 4 and 5 could now go to school, not daycare, and not as preparation for cycle 1 but to develop themselves into citizens through play. In the UK, play has been a central proponent in the development of their children which lead me to meet Ana Ardelean.

Ana Ardelean, play consultant

 

Ana has been a play consultant for over a decade, with an interest in making play central in the development of our 4 and 5 year olds. I first met her when she was releasing her research with Kate Smith and Wendy Russell, commissioned by Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) entitled, “The Case for Play in Schools: A review of the literature.”  It was at that moment I knew she needed to come to our community and share her experiences and research in regard to the power of play.

This post is Quebec’s first introduction to Ana, but not the last. In collaboration with LEARN and DEEN’s PLAY committee, Ana will be joining us for a 6 session look into all things play. Before we begin our preschool journey introductions are in order. Let me introduce you to Ana Ardelean:

What got you interested in early childhood development?

I’m just really passionate about working with children, in all their splendor. The early stages, although foundational, are just one piece of the puzzle, so through being fascinated by childhood generally, I’m automatically interested in how younger children develop, learn about themselves and the world. To me, one of the  reasons early childhood is quite intriguing is because it is the time when most of our brains develop and yet, we remember very little of that development. Which is indicative of how learning-intense that period is, and how much the brain needs to start trimming stuff away to be able to cope with and adapt to following stages. Over the years, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the impact of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), and particularly trauma on young children, and so that’s a specific area of interest, especially as we are realizing so much can be done in early childhood to diminish the impact of ACEs on later life.

What were some of your earliest experiences with our youngest learners that influenced your career path?

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

I feel like my career path chose me long before I realised what I wanted to do in life. I remember being 9-10 and just naturally into caring for young children. So much so, that I would turn down offers to go and play with my friends and just play with under 5s. I was lucky in that my local playground was right next to my home and intergenerational, so there was always a variety of ages there, depending on the time of the day. Being at school, I’d go out in the afternoons or early evenings which was also when parents with young children were out on the playground, after work. Playing with them, therefore, happened organically and I regard those memories as some of my fondest. I have such vivid flashbacks of just watching babies and toddlers play, observig the amount of learning taking place – you could actually see their ‘cogs’ turning – and how communicative they were when I joined their play and mimicked their actions.

That’s how I ended up knowing most of the parents and children in my neighborhood, how I landed my first babysitting jobs (at 11-12) and how I was nearly convinced by a family to move with them to the USA as an au-pair (I had just turned 14 at the time and they were adamant I needed to join them when I was old enough to leave the country!). As a child, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer, a journalist, an interior designer… But in the end, nothing compared to working with children, so it was a no-brainer. I did what I was best at and got into the child workforce. The rest is history.
I think it was also the overwhelmingly positive feedback from families about how well I interacted and connected with children and how I could just communicate with them through play, that definitely gave me the confidence to go and train as a playworker. But I think I would have done that anyway, because I love being around kids (especially at the magical age of 4-5 year olds) – they feed my soul and keep me young and playful at heart, which I believe it’s the secret to a long, happy life!

Why is Play so important in Early Childhood Development?

You could ask why we breathe. My answer would be the same – to stay alive. I would go further than important and say it’s essential. We’re mammals and it’s just how we’re wired – to play, explore and learn from it. Play is evidently good for us at all stages of life, but in early childhood, we are just built to learn; you often hear that young children’s brains are like sponges and there’s no better analogy for what happens in the brain, at that point. 100 billion neurons are available to us at the moment of our birth and until, roughly, the age of 5 we create 1 million neural pathways every second – faster than at any other stage in our lives.
Young children are constantly taking things in and processing them and play equals active experience. The more experiences we have, the more (and the better) we learn and adapt to survive, and hopefully, thrive. I like to think of early childhood as a house and play experience as the foundation. If you have restricted or negative experiences, the early foundation of childhood will be shaky and thereafter, negatively affect one’s future overall development and health, ability to learn, and quality of life.

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

I think it’s important for adults to understand that play is not just an activity; it’s an innate need, like eating or sleeping, so we really do require it to survive.
Jaak Panksepp, prominent neuroscientist, extensively researched rats and particularly their play, and when asked  ‘is play embedded deeply in the brain?’, he responded – ‘many experiments over the years suggested it was, but to be sure I removed the upper brain of the animals at three days of age. Amazingly, the rats still played in a fundamentally normal way. That meant play was a primitive process. We saw, too, that play helped the animals become socially sophisticated in the cortex. That’s why it’s so important to give our kids opportunities for play’. I’d hate to think of a rat with part of its brain removed, but this tells us that play is obviously essential for our survival as a species, and thus encoded in our genome. I actually had a recent conversation with a colleague who has looked in more depth at Panksepp’s work which defines play as one of the seven primal emotions (or brain processing systems), alongside seeking (survival, rewards), rage, fear, lust, care and grief ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181986/ ). After studying play and working with (a lot of) children, that does make sense and I feel it should be explored more as a concept.

Plus, we’re social creatures. Mothers playing with their babies is what helps to develop positive attachment in early childhood, young children who develop communication skills naturally use them to create relationships, teenagers build friendships through hanging out (which is their form of play), and so on.

What’s a better way of connecting with and learning about people than interacting through shared play and experience? You can see that in other species in the animal kingdom, too. Otters, for example, like many other cute mammals, spend their lives partly eating and sleeping, and partly playing, most of which is done socially. Here’s one minute of cute otter joyfulness, to illustrate that – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbIPVe99iKQ

Can you give an example of when you saw play change the lives/behaviour of our 4-5 year olds?

I can think of a lot of beautiful and tearful moments, mainly to do with how play brings children out of their shells, helps them become more confident and supports them in making sense of difficult things. But the winner must be this 4 and a half year old boy who I met working and researching play in a refugee camp. When the organised play sessions were on, he was the most cheerful, talkative and happiest little boy, whose eyes were just sparkling when we were doing rope skipping or playing uno, things that people may think of as trivial or just take for granted. But those were games he couldn’t really access in the camp, outside of the sessions. Without access to play, the boy could be seen walking around, staring blankly, often crying or experiencing strong negative emotions, and generally displaying a lot of the characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder. His mother shared that he very much struggled to sleep on the days he didn’t get to play. Heartbreaking stuff, really, but also exemplifying of the power of play, especially for traumatised children.

Muhammed Muheisen—AP

What can participants expect from the Preschool workshop series you will be leading?

A good mix of theory, interaction, reflection and practical ideas to develop their knowledge base and skills around working with young children at play.
We will be exploring early child development, play (of course!) in all its glory, with a focus on outdoor play, how to create quality environments for learning and exploration for 4-6-year-olds, and how to look at the Preschool Cycle Program through the lens of playfulness, and, most importantly, how to adapt to children’s needs and continuously improve practice. Planning this series has been a labour of love and I am really excited to get going, meet the teachers and kickstart what I hope will be an awesome shared learning experience. Looking forward to meeting everyone for the first session on 26 September!
As Ana mentions in closing, she will be leading a six-session webinar series throughout 2022-2023.
Here’s what interested participants need to know:
Join us online for a six-session webinar series that explores the fundamentals of Play in our new preschool program. |
It is free to attend.
Register for the first 3 happening in 2022.
Open to all educators in Preschool – Cycle 1

September 26th – Session 1: Child development at age 4-5

October 24th – Session 2: Unpacking Play

November 21st – Session 3: Observing play and evaluating learning

All sessions are via ZOOM from 3:30 – 5:00 PM

Please use your school board email address. Register today!