Every year, around 20,000 early childhood educators descend upon an unsuspecting city and take root for a four day conference. I have been attending the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) for 6 years now, and every year I go back home inspired and ready to jump back into my classroom with both feet. This year is no exception.
The conference opened in Orlando on Wednesday with a beautiful keynote by renowned kindergarten teacher and expert on the language of children, Vivian Gussin Paley. Mrs. Paley taught for about 40 years and is still speaking out about the importance of fantasy play in early childhood settings. In her keynote, entitled “Who Will Save the Kindergarten?”, Mrs. Paley shared the voices of kindergarten children learning invaluable lessons through their fantasy play, in a classroom that struggled to stay above the fray of standards and shielded from the pressure to make young children overburdened academic scholars. She referred to play as a “prism,” reflecting the true picture of a child. Through play we can see the whole child, not the skills a child may or may not be able to demonstrate in a phonics lesson or behaviors that lead to time in a time-out chair.
Mrs. Paley also said that a teacher’s role is to “listen to the language of her tribe.” That language is play. How often we forget to really listen to children’s conversations and to really see them as complex people who deserve our respect. Teachers and children must be the ones to save kindergarten. Children will continue to create imaginative play experiences in their every day lives. Teachers must be willing to stop and really listen, celebrating the children in their care and telling their stories.
Events like the NAEYC conference are also helping to save the kindergarten. Inspiring opportunities such as this past week provided, help to reinvigorate those in our profession and send us back into the trenches with fresh eyes and ears. We are equipped with ammunition to protect and defend those young ones who bring joy to our days and passion to our souls.