The importance of play to Early Intervention and Reading Comprehension

Do you have memories of positive experiences of early childhood? Perhaps do you remember playing outside in a cubby or racing your tricycle down a mound full speed with the wind in your hair or even discovering how clever you were that you were able to take something apart and fix it. I remember the first time I was able to ride my tricycle as fast as my brother could. He wasn’t able to call me a slow poke again!

These positive experiences require time - time for children to be able to problem solve, attempt many options and alternatives, and sort solutions for themselves. If children solve a problem with another child, they are learning effective strategies for negotiation and an appreciation of another person’s point of view – the beginnings of empathy.

This problem solving and interaction promotes a child’s oral language and social skills. Psychologists tell us how important relationships are in our lives. Strong social and language skills promote the capacity to build relationships with others and are crucial for the maintenance of our mental health.

Our Early Childhood Educators in WA know all about the importance of play. They know it is the work of children and the most effective teaching technique in the early years.

The current concern about our nation’s poor literacy and numeracy skills have resulted in a number of changes being introduced to the implementation of early childhood education. The policy makers state that they have recognised the need for early intervention so they have introduced the changes at a pre-school level. Early intervention is essential, but the skills we are addressing is the critical issue.

When we enter a primary school setting and teachers talk about language, it is often the language of literacy and numeracy they are addressing. The policy makers have taken early language intervention to mean learning sounds and letters and mastering writing at an earlier level. This is not early intervention.This is forcing a child to acquire a skill earlier than he is developmentally ready to do so.  It does not address the issues of children at risk. Teaching a child to do a skill earlier than he is ready to do so takes twice as long and is often at the expense of the child’s opportunity to learn another skill such as developing his imagination through play.

Children who are at risk in the early years for poor educational outcomes are those children who have oral language issues. These children typically have difficulty following instructions, expressing themselves in sentences, problem solving and socialising with other children. Some of these children might also have difficulty speaking intelligibly. Early intervention aimed at improving their oral language skills is crucial for these children.

Children need to understand the meaning of words and how to use them in a sentence. This cannot be done by teaching sounds and letters or by getting these children to write a complete sentence at the end of Pre-Primary.  Taking a word apart into its individual sounds without emphasizing the meaning of the word does little to promote foundation reading comprehension skills. If a child does not know the meaning of a word he/she is unlikely to use it in a written narrative task.

There is a difference between oral language skills and phonological awareness and print awareness. Phonological awareness and print awareness feature strongly in the language of literacy. Phonological awareness and Print Awareness involve hearing sounds in words, breaking words up into syllables, knowing what a word, a sound and a sentence is and being able to match sounds to letters. A child who is able to do this is able to “BARK AT PRINT”. Phonological awareness, while important,  is only one aspect of the language of literacy.  Children who are able to match sounds to letters to form a word  may or may not understand what the have read or written. Those with oral language issues typically do no comprehend all of what they hear or write.

Our wonderful Early Childhood Educators know the importance of oral language. They know that children need good comprehension skills to enjoy listening to books. They know that careful selection of texts promotes children’s attitudes that books can be wonderful things. Books promote critical thinking about possibilities and an appreciation of how the characters may feel.

Our Early Childhood Educators are being frustrated by the constant demands of assessment and the push for children to learn literacy formally before they are developmentally ready.

Imaginative play, being provided with opportunities to take things apart and put them together and early childhood literature were the foundation early years environments for the team which sent man to the moon.

I ask the WA Government to allow our Early Childhood Educators to educate our children to be creative, sociable beings by promoting their oral language skills. I also ask the Department to remove online testing and the print focus in Kindy and Pre-Primary. All this does is create more anxiety in our children and stress in our educators. Depriving our children of early play experiences stunts their oral language development, their social skill development, their imagination and their problem solving. If we continue to force literacy skills on children who are not developmentally ready, there will come a time when our population will not know how to send someone to the moon.

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