The age old argument of nature v nurture could be somewhat put to rest thanks to early development brain research (Perry, 2004). Prior to this it was thought the main influence on our intelligence was our genetics. Leaving environmental influences such as; relationships, home life and education at a mere 20%. Thanks to neuroscience we now know that 80% of the influence on the brain is environmental. The brain is 'use dependant' meaning that sensory driven activity occurs when children are learning by doing. In essence, children's brains grow when they play (Winter, 2010). Furthermore 90% of this growth happens in the first 2000 days of life!
In response to this, the early childhood profession has made some significant changes in the way they approach curriculum and service delivery. In particular, we have seen a rise in the number of services adopting nature based approaches also known as nature pedagogy. This means what we teach and how we teach it is mostly outside touching and engaging with the Earth and its treasures. Does this mean now that educators in preschools put down the stencils and flash cards and send the children outside whilst they grab a cuppa? Splashing in mud, rolling down hills...sounds fun for the children and educators can relax without running to prepare stencils and activities right? Wrong.
Play shapes the architecture of the brain in unique ways (Bartlett, 2010) therefore it takes committed practitioners in early childhood with training and experience to carefully guide, facilitate and resource children's play enabling those neural connections to occur through use. Use it or lose it. The brain synapses occur when we are actively involved in our learning and watching others being actively involved. So stencils and flashcards are not going to help prepare children for school nor will just running around outside all day. What then, how do we do this? Outdoor experiences are rich in learning when educators create enabling environments that are provocative and open ended (Warden, 2005). It takes careful planning and intentionality to know what it is the children are motivated by, learning about, and most importantly who they are doing it with.
I have used brain research findings to inform much of my work with children, families and communities over the past 17 years even when I didn’t realise it. I believe it is the fundamental right of all children to play (UNRC, Article 31) hence when I watch children play in the garden I really look at what it is about that e.g. ladybug they are intrigued by. It is not always 'cute' or 'beautiful' but scientific and technical when a child realises that one lady bug has spots and one doesn't! And it is my job to know how to research, create wonder and document that. I might run to get a magnifying glass and books but I won't rush to provide the answer. I might value the child's ability to respect the lady bug and the friend next to the child who has enough room to see it too. But I will never stop that moment because it is time to 'go inside and learn', I know their brains are making connections in that moment, I will afford more time and more space, not extend the play by assuming it is to be expressed through a craft activity.
When children have an abundance of space and opportunity to revel in optimal sensory and natural play conditions their well-being is upright and we all know we can’t learn if we don’t have our basic needs met. Educators need to be committed to responding to family’s values whilst maintaining their responsibilities to the research findings about how important play is for children and how vital it is to fulfil their role in play. I have watched educators build quality relationships with the children over the years and I continue to motivate and mentor educators to work in a sophisticated and genuine way by upskilling collaborative practice. It's quite staggering to think that if the first five years matters the most (Winter, 2010) that early educators are next to parents as the most influential people in children lives, there are certainly many who rise to the challenge.
Play is our brains favourite way of learning, play is where we practice what we have learnt, play is a necessity but we have moved past this, it is nationally and internationally recognised research. The challenge now is to ensure educators are knowledgeable and attuned in order to maximise the children's learning through play, just because children are in charge of play, does it mean educators just let children play?