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Early Childhood Education and Importance of Play

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

This year, Wisconsin’s Collaborative Leadership Forum Preserving Early Childhood Conference (PEC) will focus on play, child-initiated learning, and developmentally appropriate learning. The conference will be held March 12-14 at the Madison Concourse Hotel. It will coincide with the Reggio Emilia Wonder of Learning exhibit.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction points to the importance of play as an integral way for young children to learn. Play is explicitly called out in the department’s “Play is the Way” video, emphasizing the complex cognitive actions and communication that children are able to produce during play, all while meeting the standards.

Meaningful learning that is child-initiated, respective of linguistic and cultural differences, and multi-sensory, can all be accomplished through the context of play. The benefits are shown to last through the school years (Ostroff 2012; Yogman, et al. 2018).

In early childhood education, the concept of play does not mean every child is doing exactly the same thing. Children may need different supports, provided by knowledgeable early childhood educators, to individualize the benefits of play (Frost, Wortham, and Reifel 2012).

In developing the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards, (WMELS) the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, along with the departments of Children and Families and Health Services, established Guiding Principles for educating young children. Two of the principles specifically speak to the importance of play and child-initiated learning and developmentally appropriate learning: “Expectations for children must be guided by knowledge of child growth and development” and “Children learn through play and the active exploration of their environment.”

From a developmental perspective, research also highlights the individualized need for rest for young children in early education environments, making learning more effective. (Harper 2018). Just like play, rest may mean different things. Some children may need time to nap while others may need some quiet time or be engaged in a quiet activity. Regardless of the mode, rest allows children to recharge.

Additional information, including research and implementation of best practices surrounding play and individualized learning, will be addressed at PEC, which will feature Dr. Rachel White, Assistant Professor of Psychology, from Hamilton College, as the keynote speaker. PEC is for stakeholders - early childhood through higher education - who want to learn more about play, child-initiated learning, and developmentally appropriate learning, and to network with others across the state. For more information, visit the Department of Public Instruction Early Childhood web page.


Frost, Joe. L., Susan C. Wortham, and Stuart C. Reifel. 2012. Play and Child Development, 4 ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Harper, Amelia. 2018. “Research Ties Pre-K, Kindergarten Nap Time to Stronger Recall Skills.” Accessed January 8, 2019.

Ostroff, Wendy L. 2012. Understanding How Young Children Learn-Bringing the Science of Child Development to the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Yogman, Michael, Andrew Garner, Jeffrey J. Hutchinson, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick

Golinkoff. AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, AAP

Council on Communications and Media. 2018. “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in

Enhancing Development in Young Children.” Pediatrics. 142, no. 3 (September): 1-18