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Early Childhood Education: Children can Learn Anything Through “Play”

There is a constant conflict between early childhood educators and advocators who believe that children should only be playing, and not being “forced to learn” things. There is a fine line between the two because it is clear that children are learning even while playing. So where is the line? I think psychologist Gordon Neufeld hit the nail on the head in the article “All Work and No Play…” in Ottowa Citizen:

“Toilet training can be work, and it can be play. If a child is told that they will sit on the toilet until they produce results, then it’s work. If there’s food dye in the toilet and the child is eager to find out what colour the water turns after a tinkle, then it’s play. Learning to play the piano can be work for a preschool child, or it could be play. If it’s coming out of a child’s passion, then it’s play.”

Extrapolating this statement, I guess the same applies to any other subject we teach our young children be it reading, Math, Science, art, or even sports. It isn’t the “what” but rather the “how” – if that makes any sense. Children can learn anything as long as they want to. If they want to, it’s play. If they don’t, it’s work. And what early childhood educators should be aiming for is to make sure it looks and feels like play. And if it doesn’t, either find another way, or drop it for now.

And that brings me to another line of argument: If we make everything fun and enjoyable for our children, they will never really learn how to work hard or to persevere through hardships. I confess that this has been one of my deepest fears. Success in later life means commitment, having tenacity, and never giving up. How will a child ever learn these values if we make things too sweet for them? The natural tendency will be to follow the path of least resistence so surely it is good to give them a nudge in the direction where things are hard, isnt it?

After pondering about it further, in light of the article in Ottowa Citizen, the question isn’t “whether” but “when”. There will be time for them to learn about struggling and working hard in the later years. During the early years, it should be about foundation and grounding. If we can do that right, they will be primed and ready for challenges later in life – or so I hope. I guess this is a little like the discipline issue – what they are now is not necessarily how they will be when they’re 18. In fact, there are numerous changes that children undergo that we come to accept as part of the natural law of growing up – that they won’t still be in diapers when they’re 18, they won’t be still nursing, they won’t be stuck to us like a siamese twin because they’re worried they won’t see us again, and I could go on and on.

Rather than fear a particular trait you don’t like in your child and worry that he’ll be doomed to be like that for the rest of his life, work on helping him over come it and be patient. Don’t expect miracles to happen overnight. The great thing about noticing these faults early is that we can still do something to correct it.

Anyway, I’ve digressed… The article also adds that:

Neufeld is against four-year-old kindergarten. He’s also against five-year-old kindergarten. And possibly even six-year-old kindergarten. Unless, of course, kindergarten is all about play and not at all about results.

So I guess I should be glad that whenever I ask Aristotle what he did at school, he answers: “Nothing. I played all day.”

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Early Childhood Education: Children can Learn Anything Through “Play”

  1. Shen Li, thanks for sharing this.
    I felt that I am giving lots of “work” to my boy (18mths old), especially the potty training.
    Gosh, I wish I can be that creative.

    Recently talked with a friend, who has 3 kids (2 boys 5-6yrs & 1 girl 2yrs)
    The boys are in some playschool kindergarten since 3 yrs old, and the school is Montessori type less focus on academic.

    My friend told me, he was quite pleased since the beginning, and seeing how his boys learn to share stuffs together, and having quality time without stress with homework.
    But… when they reach 5-6years, he started to worry, when his boys unable to pronounce and recognize Bahasa Malaysia sukukata properly.

    He is now rethinking whether he should send his girl to the same type of school.
    He commented, if the boys unable to master these at this age, their foundation will be poor and unable to catch up in primary later.

    This makes me ponder, why are all the parents having the academic-oriented mindset?
    Is that really the foundation?
    Will I be one of them when I found out my boy is not par with the rest?
    Can I keep compose, and confident to my approach, and believe to my son & right brain education?
    Did I provide him the sufficient right brain education?

    I guess people always want to see the result, to validate the approach.
    But we are on a marathon journey, not a sprint run.
    Result will show along the way, not after the sprint.

    I admire Neufeld’s opinion on all about play and not all about results.
    I need to keep remind myself not to digress and continuously believing my son’s capabilities.


    1. Hi PC,

      I understand his fear. I think the last thing we want as parents is to see our children struggle in school. And yet, success in school does not equal success in life. Unfortunately, success in school is the only thing we can control. What happens in later life is beyond our control. It all lies in the hands of our children. The only consolation we can have as parents is whether we have done a “good job” with their schooling or not. So regardless of whether school is or isn’t a good measure of later success, it is unfortunately all we have, and so we rely on it even when better judgement and sense tells us otherwise.

      It is the same thing I tell myself over and over. I know that having creativity and good people skills are more important than getting straight A’s, but will I still feel the same when the boys bring home report cards with D’s? We hear so many stories of successful people who never did well in school and yet we still want our children to excel in school because it is the only thing we can control.

      I’m not saying that it is right to think this way, but it is understandable that many parents feel this way. And it is difficult to hold fast to the knowledge that it is not a sprint but a marathon, especially if your child appears to be “struggling” in school and other parents are citing off all the extra tuition classes they are sending their straight A children to.

      Hubby and I have talked about this a lot and we have agreed that it is not the report card that counts but how our child develops that matters. We will never know if we’re doing the right thing until he comes out into the world and makes his mark. By then, if we’re wrong, it’s too late to fix – and that’s a pretty scary thought. The only thing we can do is hold fast to what we believe and trust in our children to find their own way. Admittedly, it’s easy to say and a lot harder to do…


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