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Why Learning Through Play is More Important Than Ever

In the wake of the Pandemic, early childhood educators are being bombarded with phrases like "learning loss" and "catching up." Angela Eckhoff, PhD,author of Provoking Curiosity: Student-Led STEAM Learning for Pre-K to Third Grade, recommends providing children authentic hand-on, minds-on ways to learn through play rather than doubling down on didactic teaching.


I want to start by thanking you for all of the efforts that you've made over the past 18 months to support the children and families in your classes. I know a lot of us are beginning to be concerned because we're hearing a lot of phrases tossed around, phrases such as “learning loss,” “getting kids ready to learn,” and “catching them up for next year.” You need to know that those terms are being used inappropriately. Children haven't lost their learning.

What children lost were the opportunities that you would have provided in a typical year in your classroom. We don't need to focus on “How can we speed up their learning next year?” We do need to focus on how can we provide the classroom environments and learning experiences that are going to build on all of the great things we know about how young children learn. 

We know that young children learn best when they're engaged in play. We know that they learn best when they have hands-on, minds-on experiences—experiences that let them manipulate materials and media, collaborate with peers, and learn from you and from others as they watch interactions and listen to discussions.

We need to hold onto those ideals so that we can push back against some of the rhetoric and pressure to engage in more didactic ways of teaching. For example, if children are working on counting, we know they will learn best when they are counting as they play with materials and manipulatives. We don't need to go back to having them do worksheets to “speed up their learning.” Worksheets won’t support their understanding. Hands-on experiences will.

It's my hope that you'll find lots of good information—as described in Provoking Curiosity and in other Gryphon House books—that helps you develop experiences that give children opportunities to build both the content understandings and the social-emotional skills or language skills they need. As they engage with others in these play-based, project-based experiences, they will learn. For example, in Provoking Curiosity you will find examples of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics experiences that are all play based and cooperative. When they explore and build concepts through play, children are engaging in real-world learning within your classroom, and they're doing it at their own pace.

I hope that you'll use high-quality, play-based ideas and resources to empower yourselves as you step into the classroom next year. As a field, we are going to be advocating for the practices that will support authentic learning. We will be resisting that pressure to try to “speed up children's learning” because we know that children are in charge of their own minds. The best thing that we can do for them as they move into the next year is to make sure that our classrooms will support them and meet their needs.

Remember, we are reflective teachers. We can recognize what's taking place and use our knowledge and our experience to support children's learning throughout the upcoming school year.

I wish you the best of luck!


Provoking Curiosity brings teachers of children from preschool through third grade new and easy-to-execute STEAM learning experiences. Each activity is developmentally appropriate and engages children—individually, in small groups, or in one large group—to think, explore, and wonder. Each exploration builds on core ideas in the STEAM disciplines, develops higher-level thinking skills, and uses readily available materials. The inviting STEAM explorations in Provoking Curiosity will remind children that learning can be enjoyable and that they are capable of success in the STEAM disciplines.

Angela Eckhoff, PhD, is an associate professor of Teaching and Learning–Early Childhood Education and the director of the Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center at Old Dominion University. She is coeditor of the Full STEAM Ahead column for Teaching Young Children from NAEYC. Dr. Eckhoff studies the role of creativity in child development and learning, arts-based research and pedagogical practices, and early STEAM learning in both classroom and museum settings.

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