Our children have not been taught about Sukkot.
The past two weeks, our children have played Sukkot. They have ridden tricycles through the sukkah on the roof, build their own sukkahs out of blocks, gone on fantastical “sukkah train rides.” With a lulav and etrog in each class, and the sukkah shared by all, our children have been busy deciphering these symbols and creating their own meaning. Their words and learning have come home through Daily Reflections: “The sukkah has no walls!”, “A sukkah is a big house for eating snacks in,” “This [etrog] smells like lemonade but it’s not lemonade,” and “This [lulav] is like a tree because it has leaves.” They have come to these foundational understandings through active, child initiated, hands-on (and ears and eyes and even sometimes mouths-on!), play.
Play is the primary vehicle through which our young children learn. Play is our chief pedagogical resource. As educators, we have many tools in our toolkit to augment the power of play: read-alouds, graphs, teacher-instruction, and so many more. But play remains the strongest tool in the toolkit; it is our power drill. It sets the stage for nearly all of the learning that will take place in our school this year.
Why? Why play?
We choose play for three reasons: experience, theory, and research. The collective knowledge of generations of teachers, theorists, and researchers tells us that young children learn, remember, and understand best through play.
Vivian Paley, early childhood teacher and researcher for the past 60 years, writes that nursery students are, “the only age group in school that is always making up its own work assignments. It looks and sounds like play, yet we properly call this play the work of children.” Children enter the world with an intrinsic motivation to create meaning out of their surroundings. Maintaining environments that nurture this motivation becomes a primary role of the teacher. Providing symbols of sukkot to play with, along with rich prompting questions, puts our students in an environment ripe for learning.
Lev Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist whose work has profoundly shaped American early childhood theory, writes extensively about the ability to play as the most significant developmental accomplishment of a young child. He further extrapolates that play gives children the foundational skills to be learners for the rest of their life. Mariah Montessori, founder of the worldwide Montessori approach, went so far as to say, “we adults cannot teach children from three to six years of age” – they must learn from active exploration of their environment.
The Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy at the National Research Council reports on a research study on the effects of play on children’s learning. They conclude that, “Young children’s recall with toys is better after participating in play. [4 year old children] were asked to either ‘play’ with a set of toys or to ‘remember’ the toys. The children had better recall in the ‘play’ condition.” They explain this was because the children asked to “remember” focused on rote rehearsing of the qualities of the toy, while the “play” children focused on the function of the toy.
Our children have not been taught about sukkot. They have played it. Their play has been supported by other tools from our toolkit, including some direct teacher instruction, but play remains our power drill. We will be going back to this tool time and again. This is not only how children learn, it is how they learn best.
What does your child play with at home and on playdates? What are they learning about?