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Early Childhood Education

Power to the Profession

NEA working to Unify the Early Childhood Profession

Power to the Profession(P2P) is a two-year initiative to define the professional field of practice that unifies early childhood educators across all states and settings to enrich the lives of children and families. Power to the Profession gives early educators an opportunity to contribute to a comprehensive set of the guidelines that advance their livelihoods and improve their lives. NEA is among 15 national organizations that represents and engages large groups of early childhood professionals working with children from birth through third grade. They make up the core task force, along with over 25 national organizations with systems-level influence in the early childhood profession that comprise the stakeholder group. (See the list of the participating organizationshere.)

The task force will meet and develop draft recommendations on the core components of a unified early childhood profession in a series of Decision Cycles, which then be shared with the public for feedback. The task force will revise the drafts to reflect feedback from the public and will finalize the components by consensus vote. The core components to be considered are:

NEA will continue to post P2P updates, drafts, and surveys. NEA members can also sign up here to receive updates that include opportunities to be a part of the conversation.

The Importance of Play in Learning: Research & Resources

The value of play and its place in public school classrooms has long been debated. For years, kindergarten teachers have fought to maintain classrooms that include learning centers, free play, and outdoor recess to support student learning. The recent emphasis on school accountability and the expansion of state and district funded prekindergarten programs have even more teachers struggling to provide learning experiences that are both developmentally and academically appropriate to prepare students for success in later grades. Research provides evidence that play in all its forms is beneficial to a child’s overall development and that guided play—structured by educators for an intended purpose—supports positive social foundations, executive function, and cognitive development. In response to educator concerns regarding the disappearance of play in prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, he National Education Association (NEA) has compiled a list of research and resources on the importance of play and play-based instruction in early childhood classrooms.

Play, Child Development, and Learning

Bendixen-Noe, M. Bringing Play Back to the Classroom: How Teachers Implement Board and Card Games Based on Academic Learning Standards ( PDF, 63.5 KB, 7 pgs.). Investigates how teachers’ utilized play based methods in teaching academic learning standards.

Bento, G., G. Dias. 2017. The Importance of Outdoor Play for Young Children’s Healthy Development. Porto Biomedical Journal 2017; 2(5). 157–160. ( PDF, 169 KB, 4 pgs.) Describes the results of a project focused on the exploration of the outdoor environment was developed with a group of young children in an early childhood education setting in Portugal.

Becker, D. R., M. M. McClelland, P. Loprinzi, and S. G. Trost. 2014. Physical Activity, Self-Regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children. Early Education and Development, 25:56-70 (PDF PDF, 172 KB, 16 pgs.). Investigates whether active play during recess was associated with self-regulation and academic achievement in a Head Start program.

Graue, B. 2006. The Answer Is Readiness Now What Is the Question? Early Education and Development - EARLY EDUC DEV. 17. 43-56. 10.1207/s15566935eed1701_3 ( PDF, 421 KB, 16 pgs.). Examines the theoretical and empirical use of the term “readiness” to determine its meaning to the child, the school, and the community.

Lillard, A. S., M. D. Lerner, E. J. Hopkins, R. A. Dore, E. D. Smith, and C. M. Palmquist. 2012. The Impact of Pretend Play on Children's Development: A Review of the Evidence. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029321 ( PDF,  288 KB, 35 pgs.). Examines whether pretend play is crucial to language development, emotional regulations, social skills, and executive function.

Play and Children with Disabilities

Lifter, K., E. Mason, E. Barton. 2011. Children’s Play: Where We Have Been and Where We Could Go. Journal of Early Intervention 33(4), 281-297 ( PDF, 940 KB, 18 pgs.). Addresses the importance of play for serving children with delays and disabilities.

Lifter, K., S. Foster-Sanda, C. Arzamarski, J. Briesch, E. McClure. 2011. Overview of Play: Its Uses and Importance in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education. Infants & Young Children: July/September 2011 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 225–245 doi: 10.1097/IYC.0b013e31821e995c ( PDF, 156 KB, 21 pgs.). Presents a review about the importance of play in early intervention, early childhood special education and early childhood education.

Sandall, S. 2003. Play Modifications for Children with Disabilities. Young Children. PDF, 554 KB, 4 pgs.) Identifies eight categories of curriculum modifications teachers can use in their classrooms

Play and Early Literacy

Banerjee, R., A. Alsalman, A. Shehana. 2016. Supporting Sociodramatic Play in Preschools to Promote Language and Literacy Skills of English Language Learners. Early Childhood Education Journal 44:299-305 ( PDF, 360 KB, 8 pgs.). Shares evidence based strategies to support early literacy skills for English Language Learners during sociodramatic play.

Biordi, L., N. Gardner. 2014. Play and Write: An Early Literacy Approach. Practically Primary (19) 1, 6-9 ( PDF, 541 KB, 5 pgs.). Describes how two teachers used play as a motivation for writing.

Booker, K., J. Batt. 2016. Curiosity, Wonder and Awe with Literacy in Preschool. Practical Literacy 21(3), 16-19 ( PDF, 781 KB, 5 pgs). Discusses using play and literature to support oral language and literacy development.

Mandel Morrow, L., M. K. Rand. 1991. Promoting Literacy During Play by Designing Early Childhood Classroom Environments. The Reading Teacher 44(6), 396-402 ( PDF, 1.48 MB, 8 pgs.). Describes how the classroom environment can be designed to encourage play and promote literacy development.

Massey, S. L. 2012. From the Reading Rug to the Play Center: Enhancing Vocabulary and Comprehensive Language Skills by Connecting Storybook Reading and Guided Play. Early Childhood Education Journal (2013) 41:125–131 ( PDF, 146 KB, 8 pgs.). Describes how early childhood educators can promote oral language development by creating a language-rich environment in which children become active participants in classroom dialogue.

Moon, K., S. Reifel. 2008. Play and Literacy Learning in a Diverse Language Pre-kindergarten Classroom. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 9 (1) ( PDF, 148 KB, 17 pgs.). Explores a teacher’s understandings of the role of play and her use of play in literacy learning serving children from diverse language backgrounds.

Play and Kindergarten

Bassok, D., S. Latham, and A. Rorem. 2016. Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? AERA Open January-March 1(4). 1–31 ( PDF, 541 KB, 31 pgs.). Compares public school kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010 to show substantial changes in kindergarten teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, time spent on academic and nonacademic content, classroom organization, pedagogical approach, and use of standardized assessments.

Fomberg, D. 2006. The Role of Play in Full-day Kindergarten. reprinted from: Quality Full-Day Kindergarten: Making the Most of It. National Education Association, Washington D.C. ( PDF, 349 KB, 9 pgs.) Provides a summary of research that supports the significance of play in early childhood and closes with some ways in which kindergarten teachers can support children’s intellectual, social, linguistic, and problem-solving capacity through sensitive intervention in play.

Teacher Perceptions and Use of Play

Graue, E. 2008. Teaching and Learning in a Post-DAP World. Early Education and Development, 19(3), 441–447 ( PDF, 89 KB, 8 pgs). Examines the influence of standards based education on developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education

Ranz-Smith, D. J. 2007. Teacher Perception of Play: In Leaving No Child Behind Are Teachers Leaving Childhood Behind? Early Education and Development, 18(2), 271–303 ( PDF, 491 KB, 34 pgs.). Explored teacher perceptions of the role of play in learning and the implications for practice.

Roden,T., S. Szabo. Play Workshop: Changing Preschool Teachers’ Ideas about Play in the Curriculum. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin: International Journal for Professional Educators ( PDF, 165 KB, 7 pgs). Describes how a workshop conducted for 18 preschool teachers who learned about the need and purpose of play through experiencing both individual and group play activities revealed a positive change in these preschool teachers’ beliefs and attitudes toward the importance of play and its place in the preschool curriculum.

Play and the Arts

Bugler, M. 2012. Play with a purpose: deepening young children’s engagement with the visual arts in the early childhood environment. Educating Young Children - Learning and teaching in the early childhood years 18 2. 33-36 ( PDF, 169 KB, 5 pgs). Discusses the importance of art in children’s learning.

Play and Early Math

Ramani, G. B., R. S. Siegler. 2008. Promoting Broad and Stable Improvements in Low-Income Children’s Numerical Knowledge Through Playing Number Board Games. Child Development, March/April. 79(2). 375 – 394 ( PDF, 344 KB, 2 pgs.). This study found that playing number board games correlated positively with numerical knowledge.

Frye, D., A. J.Baroody, M. Burchinal, S. M. Carver, N. C. Jordan, and J. McDowell. 2013. Teaching Math to Young Children: A Practice Guide. (NCEE 2014-4005). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education ( PDF, 344 KB, 2 pgs.). This practice guide provides practical, evidence-based recommendations that address teaching early math to children ages 3 to 6.

Play, Standards and Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)

Graue, M. E., S. Ryan, A. Nocera, K. Northey, and B. Wilinski. 2017. Pulling PreK into a K-12 Orbit: The Evolution of PreK in the Age of Standards. Early Years, 37:1, 108-122, DOI: 10.1080/09575146.2016.1220925 ( PDF, 1 MB, 16 pgs.). Argues that standards-based practice is evolving into accountability in public preK programs.

Fowler, C. R. 2016. Reframing the Debate about the Relationship Between Learning and Development: An Effort to Resolve Dilemmas and Reestablish Dialogue in a Fractured FieldEarly Childhood Education Journal 45:155–162. ( PDF, 320 KB, 8 pgs.) Examines the dilemma that early educators purportedly face between teaching the whole child and the curriculum, between developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) and standards.

Manship, K., J. Farber, C. Smith, and K. Drummond. 2016. Case Studies of Schools Implementing Early Elementary Strategies: Preschool through Third Grade Alignment and Differentiated Instruction. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service Prepared by: American Institutes for Research ( PDF, 1.42 MB, 99 pgs.). This study examined two types of strategies that preliminary literature searches revealed as promising practices to support children’s learning in early elementary school: (1) aligning instruction from preschool through grade 3 (referred to as P–3 alignment) and (2) differentiated instruction.

Nilsson, M., B. Ferholt, R. Lecusay. 2017. ‘The playing-exploring child’: Reconceptualizing the relationship between play and learning in early childhood education. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 1-15. ( PDF, 695 KB, 15 pgs.) Argues for a reconceptualization of early childhood education that understands learning and development not as an outcome, primarily, of instruction and teaching, but as an outcome of play and exploration.

Youngquist, J., J. Pataray-Ching. 2004. Revisiting “Play”: Analyzing and Articulating Acts of Inquiry. Early Childhood Education Journal, Spring 31(3). 171-178 ( PDF, 343 KB, 10 pgs.). Suggests that early childhood profession needs to establish a different discourse to describe what has been referred to as “play” in early childhood by distinguishing between play that occurs outside of the classroom as opposed to play that occurs as part of classroom curriculum.

Other Resources



Research and Recommendations

Early childhood education: one of the best investments our country can make. 

Long-Term Benefits of Early Childhood Education

Research shows that providing a high quality education for children before they turn five yields significant long-term benefits.

One well-known study, the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, found that individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program ultimately earned up to $2,000 more per month than those who were not. Young people who were in preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, and have longer marriages.

Other studies, like The Abecedarian Project, show similar results. Children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law.

Early childhood education makes good economic sense, as well. In Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return, a high-ranking Federal Reserve Bank official pegs its return on investment at 12 percent, after inflation.

NEA Is Committed to Improving Early Childhood Education

High quality early childhood education represents one of the best investments our country can make. NEA believes it's a common sense investment we can't afford to pass up. NEA recommends, among other things:

  • Free, publicly funded, quality kindergarten programs in all states.
  • Mandatory full-day kindergarten. Just 14 states require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten. 
  • Optional free, publicly funded, quality "universal" pre-kindergarten programs for all three- and four-year-old children whose parents choose to enroll them. Three states are moving toward such a program - Georgia, New York and Oklahoma.
  • Federal funds to make pre-kindergarten programs available for all three- and four-year-old children from disadvantaged families. State and local governments should provide the additional funds necessary to make pre-kindergarten available for all three- and four-year old children.
  • Dedicated funding for early childhood education. Public schools should be the primary provider of pre-kindergarten programs, and additional funding must be allocated to finance them in the same manner as K-12 schools.