Play Is a Cornerstone in Professor David Fernie’s View of Education


“You have to give play its place in childhood and recognize it’s important.”

What do you see when you look at a group of small children, playing game as superheroes? Some of us may see them imitating what they see on TV and movie screens, burning off energy and occasionally being a bit disruptive. But early childhood professor David Fernie sees something more intricate happening in this form of play: children learning to work out lessons about power and vulnerability. For this reason, Fernie sees tremendous value in organic, unstructured play for young children. Naturally inclined to be creative and inventive with found objects, young children use this time to discover problems and learn to solve them. As they do this, they interact with people in their environment, finding allies and friends along the way. In Fernie’s words, it is a “huge, huge vehicle […] to understand your world of things, and your world of people.”

Regrettably, public policy governing education often seems to favor a philosophy that runs counter to the importance of play. Fernie cites the cutting of recess at schools nationwide: too many view it as time away from task, when in reality that time away allows children to return to task revitalized and eager to attack a problem in a new way. By the way, Fernie also recognizes that this viewpoint on play as vital to learning should be a part of adults’ repertoire as well. Treating a problem or project playfully allows us to experiment without over attachment to an outcome, making us more likely to try again should we fail. In his words: “I see a role for being playful in the productive lives of creative adults.”

Lest you be worried about what the role of an early childhood teacher is in a classroom that uses unstructured play as a co-teacher in the classroom, Fernie offers this reframe:

Someone who listens to children’s ideas and tries to help them extend those ideas so that they build more knowledge. Extend those things into mathematical understanding, literacy, scientific understanding, all the things that you know are of value certainly and become increasingly of value when we start to go formally up the discipline that children encounter.

Fernie can’t overstate how important this time in play is at this crucial stage of life. “I don’t think you can really do responsive early childhood education unless it contains lots of supportive opportunities for kids to play.” The time that children spend in play, extending their ideas into new domains, is essential to their development into competent and curious adults. Therefore, making time for these activities in the early childhood classroom places the teacher in the enviable and invaluable role of shaping small students in key ways.