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Virginia Tech emphasizes the ‘power of play' in early education

How local experts are reacting to the conversation about child care environments

BLACKSBURG, Va. – The discussion about quality at preschool and child care centers continues after a video went viral showing a child crying at a local day care center, and some early education experts want to spread the word about why play-based learning is so beneficial.

Staff at the Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research reached out to 10 News, wanting to tell parents what to look for when searching for child care.

They showed us inside their child care center, which has children from 15 months old to those about to go off to kindergarten.

A group of 5-year-olds, along with their teacher, were tracing circles on cardboard to cut out wheels for a 5-foot-tall ice cream truck they were building. 

There were no explicit instructions from adults. They chose the project, the design, the materials, how to make it -- even which flavors of ice cream they’ll serve to their parents in two weeks. They’re working on problem-solving skills, motor skills and cooperation, all while learning about materials and how things are made.

These are concepts the center has been working to improve for years.

“We follow the children’s interests and we really incorporate those interests through play,” Director Karen Gallagher said. “The power of play is phenomenal when it comes to the concepts we can instill in children.”

The actvities are not teacher directed. They're teacher supported. There are no worksheets here.

Whenever they’d like, the children are free to walk over to a secluded area of the room to write, read or create something.

“We’re really trying to build the children’s autonomy, their ability to be innovative and to problem-solve, to gain critical thinking skills,” curriculum coordinator Alexa Gardner said.

Recently, the kids watched the new "Lion King" movie, which sparked an interest in certain animals, which they’ve been learning about this week.

Dr. Cindy Smith, who’s affiliated with the center through her role as an associate professor in the department of Human Development and Family Science, said her child had a great experience at the center.

“He would run into the center. He loved this place,” Smith said.

A teacher was surprised when one day Smith’s son told them, “That structure is not stable.” She realized her son learned that simply through playing with cars at the center.

The staff at Virginia Tech is worried that the teaching practices traditionally geared toward first graders have trickled down to kindergarteners, and the ways kindergarten teachers usually teach have made their way into preschool classrooms. Their goal is to take the rigid "Do-as-I-say" instruction out of all of these environments.

When choosing a child care center, staff members said parents should see if the children there have a high level of engagement and freedom and are talking and moving. They believe teachers should be getting down on the children's level, giving minimal directives but staying in constant conversation.

It’s playing, with a purpose.

They said they wish more facilities could provide this type of setting.

“It’s amazing what children can do if you give them the ability to do it and the environment to do it,” Gallagher said.

The website Virginia Quality is a resource for parents to get information on how specific local centers are putting these concepts into practice, to prepare kids for kindergarten -- and for the rest of their lives.

Staff members said low pay continues to be an issue for early childhood education teachers. They believe systemic issues are keeping roadblocks in place.

The cost of providing a play-based learning environment is higher than what many families can afford, keeping even well-educated teachers underpaid, they said.

“Until we’re able as a society to address how valuable early childhood education is we’re not going to change this,” Smith said.

Many positions earn less than $25,000 dollars a year. The staff said the perception that it’s a babysitting job is part of the problem.

In a push to get more qualified teachers in the area, Virginia Tech will offer a new major called Childhood Pre-Education starting this fall.


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