Play is the Way

The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have had lasting effects on preschool-aged children. Periods of quarantine, limited social opportunities, masks, and social distancing placed a layer of stress on young children that teachers and parents are seeing manifest as gaps in social-emotional and interpersonal skill development, aversion to risk, and slower fine and gross motor development.

A cohort of early childhood educators in Kentucky, including several Sacred Heart Preschool teachers, explored the new developmental needs of students and how a shift in teaching practices can better support all students as we emerge from the pandemic. They spent a day immersed in reflection and collaboration at Bernheim Forest’s new Playcosystem that led to a Community of Practice that took an in-depth approach to studying free play in nature, risk, approaches to learning, and how schemas as planning tools lead to interdisciplinary learning environments.

Four Sacred Heart Preschool teachers took the lead as play researchers and champions in moving the needle for all children. The goal of creating this new model of professional development and community outreach, in partnership with the Children at Play Network and Thrive Parent/Teacher consultants, was to create a web of support and relationships for area educators and families.

This was followed by an interactive dialogue, panel discussion and Q&A session with Claude Stephens, Director of Bernheim’s Children at Play Network, Kim Tabler, Early Childhood Trainer for Thrive Parent & Teacher Consultants, and Austin Nikolich, Director of Sacred Heart Preschool.

Attendees saw how local educators have been weaving outdoor free play into their preschool settings. Teachers and Administrators from Sacred Heart Preschool, Highland Presbyterian Nursery and Weekday School, and the Preschool at St. Raphael as well as a group of interested parents all attended.

The event began with presentations by teachers who participated in multi-session professional development workshops called ‘Play is the Way’ that delved into the value of play. According to the Children at Play Network blog post, “That approach really seemed to provide the attending teachers with a deeper appreciation for the nuances of play-based learning for young children.

The informal discussion explored what schools, teachers, parents, and the larger community might do to advance the value of play. Look for future Play is the Way training and community discussions and join in. Together we can really start to address changing the standard industrial model of education toward opportunities that really value the passions, proclivities, and proficiencies that children come into the world understanding.”

Reactions from participants:

“I learned so much from this professional development series! The format of an ongoing series with a culminating event allowed me to apply the practice in my classroom and challenged me to consistently document the exciting changes I observed. The series also allowed us, as educators, to support and share our ideas and experiences, becoming advocates of play to our greater school community. I strongly recommend this professional development to anyone interested in hearing the case for play.” -Caroline, teacher

“I enjoyed the training series model. It was helpful to start with the training at Bernheim, go back and implement what we observed, and then come back together to expand the discussions of our practice. The group discussions and brainstorming in subsequent meetings facilitated new ideas and strengthened my resolve to play.” -Christine, teacher

“I really appreciated the fact that it wasn’t a sitting training. I enjoyed that it was a group collaboration and hands-on discussion. I learn best through other people’s experiences and loved learning through other teachers. Being a first-year teacher helped also really enjoyed getting to know my fellow teachers!” - Joelle, teacher

“Sending our kids to Sacred Heart Preschool has been a great decision for our family.  This was confirmed even more after attending the discussion about play the other night.  As a parent navigating toddlers and education and a pandemic, we have had to get creative in how we shape our children’s experiences.  When we attended the Bernheim play date it opened our eyes to how important play is in shaping our kids’ growth.  The talk at Sacred Heart with Kim, Claude, Austin, and teachers gave me the framework to understand not only how play is helping my kids at school, but also how I can do this with them at home.  Since we were at Sacred Heart, my husband and I have both incorporated skills we learned to let our kids explore risk and learn by playing while we simply observe.  Not that we needed another reason to love our school, but this was eye-opening in just how thoughtful the teachers and administration are at SHP and the amount of hard work and dedication they put toward molding amazing kids.” – Bethany, parent