TheFuturePlay, Nature, and Spiritual Development: Ingredients for Quality Learning, Happy Children, and a Better Society

By Deborah Schein, Ph.D.

Consultant for the Agency of Jewish Learning, Pittsburgh, PA

Adjunct Professor for Early Childhood Graduate Department of Champlain College in Vermont

Many early childhood educators agree with researchers and philosophers who say that play is important for healthy human development. I have recently completed a Ph.D. in spiritual development. The findings of my research hold new understandings for creating quality instruction, higher standards, better assessment scores, more joy in learning, and ultimately a better society.

 First: A Look at Play

My fondest memories of play include roller skating downhill with the wind upon my face; climbing trees where I could nestle among the leaves while glancing upon the world of my neighborhood; and taking walks with my grandfather as we collected beautiful pieces of nature complete with names, colors, textures, and smells. Each of these activities were enhanced when done with a friend.

Young children in the classrooms in which I have taught have also appreciated exploration with block building, using art materials, reading, dress-up, etc in clean, beautiful, uncluttered environments. I would set up my classrooms so that children played and through the play they learned . . . while they learned, I observed so that I might provide the next needed stimulus for their learning to continue. My role was that of facilitator rather than teacher.

 Spiritual Development

For me, important play takes place within spiritual moments. In 2005, when I went to the internet to see what was said about spiritual development for young children, I found very little relevant material. This led to my doctoral research titled: Early Childhood Educator’s Perceptions of Spiritual Development in Young Children. It was my goal to begin analyzing the meaning of spiritual development while also questioning how early childhood educators might nurture this often forgotten area of development. I hoped to increase awareness of spiritual development in all early childhood programs in the United States by defining it as separate from God and religion. Therefore, I focused on finding other important elements of spiritual development that might be found in everyday experiences.

Data sorting of interviews with 12 experienced and very accomplished early childhood educators from across the United States led to a description of spiritual development as a system of children’s deep connections (with others, self, nature, and big questions). Deep connections seem to lead to greater self-awareness. The findings also spoke to the importance of nurturing basic and complex dispositions[1] ignited by moments of wonderment, awe, joy, and inner peace (basic dispositions) that develop into the pro-social personality traits of caring, kindness, empathy, and reverence (complex dispositions). Nature played an important role for providing wonder, big questions, and a sense of responsibility. This system of spiritual development also requires love and attachment, spiritual modeling, and time spent by children within spiritual moments. Participants described specific attributes for spiritual moments in time, space, nature, within relationships and with big questions capable of taking children beyond themselves.[2]

More importantly, these spiritual moments are made available to children through play. Reflecting back on my memories of play, I see that I was given a gift of time to be outdoors, to pursue the activities of my own choosing; to spend time with those I chose to be with, in places I wanted to be. I was loved. I was seen. I was respected. Because of this, my play was capable of touching me deeply in a way that helped me to better know myself. This person I call “me” houses my spiritualness or my spiritual embryo[3], a force that is nurtured through love, experiences, language, being present in the world of nature, feeling and hearing one’s own breath, and respecting others.

 Mindfulness and Being Present

More recently I have been reading about the concept of mindfulness. Friends and colleagues are telling me that mindfulness is equivalence to spiritual development. I am not convinced. They tell me to use this word instead of spiritual development. Spirituality, they say, comes with too much baggage. Instead I see mindfulness as the part of spiritual development where one is present during a spiritual moment. It is possible that being present during play makes play itself a spiritual moment.   But spiritual development is much more than being present in the moment.

Martin Buber speaks about presence being a required element for any I-Thou relationship. Young children experience such moments quite frequently, but only if they are first loved and then when they are invited to play within beautiful spaces where they are given time to explore, and trusted to do so following their own agenda.

I recently returned from a visit to Israel. There, children as young a one-year-olds are free to climb and roam the small playgrounds that dot the landscape while the parent or care-givers sit in the shade supervising from afar. I did not see any helicopter parents hover with fear thus preventing children from experiencing presence in their own moments of play. I also saw many children simply being present in the park, sitting head to head upon a rock or in the grass. Pure contentment in the moment shone on their faces.


Based upon my own experiences as an educator and as a researcher, play; spirituality defined as a system of deep connections and the nurturing of children’s dispositions through wonder and joy, caring and empathy; and presence reflected in I and Thou relationships all provide impetus for the development of self-awareness. A developing sense of self or positive self-awareness helps to propel us human beings toward wanting to know, knowing, and remembering. Being in nature also helps to support these qualities of life. These qualities of being provide a tapestry in which children can hold language and understandings that connect to context and content of their experiences. Real learning thus takes place when the whole child is engaged in spiritual moments where the self, the spirit, and the mind are equally engaged.

Jan Huzinga, the Dutch theological, once provocatively suggested that rather than being known as Homo sapiens, the wise creature, human beings might be called homo ludens, the playful being. Whatever wisdom his observations may contain for human beings as a species, it serves to underscore the importance of our thinking about the relationship between play, spiritual development, and quality learning for young children as our educations systems move into a new phase of thinking about early childhood education. Play and spiritual development should not be forgotten!


Buber, M. 1923/1996. I and Thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Touchstone.

Katz, L. (2009). Intellectual emergencies: Some reflections on mothering and teaching. Louisville, NC: Kaplan Press.

Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind (C. A. Claremont, Trans.). New York, NY: Dell.

Montessori, M. (1963). The secret of childhood (B. B. Carter, Trans.). Bombay, India: Orient Longmans.

Rivkin, M. & Schein, D. (2014). The great outdoors:  Providing natural spaces for young children. Washington DC: NAEYC.

Schein, D. L. (winter, 2014).  Practices that nurture young Jewish children’s spiritual development. The Reform Jewish Quarterly published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Special edition, 116-133.

Schein, D. L. (2012). Early childhood educators’ perceptions of spiritual development in young children: A social constructivist grounded theory study. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Walden University.

Wilson, R.A., & Schein, D. (In press) Supporting the spiritual development of young children. Essays in Jewish scholarship and education in honor of Lifsa Schachter.


Beyond the “Godzilla” of Technology and Interactive Media Verses Young Children’s Play

By Lynn Hartle, Ph.D.

Professor of Education, The State University of Pennsylvania, Brandywine

The world is rapidly changing as technologies and interactive media tools permeate our daily lives to make communication and the access of information easier, faster, better, and more fun, but many play advocates, (including this author) question – “At what price?”. Are these technologies “Godzillas” that mindlessly ravage children of important play opportunities? Young children in the 21st century are no strangers to uses of these technologies and interactive media; just search the internet for “toddler with iPad”; “five year old playing the Wii; Or “six year old on Skype”. Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America (2013), a nationwide survey of parents by Common Sense Media reported that 38 percent of children under 2 have used a mobile device for media (compared to 10% in 2011). Seventy-two percent of children age 8 and under have used a mobile device for some type of media activity such as playing games, watching videos, or using apps, up from 38% in 2011.

So what does the research say?

So, the question remains and the research is limited and can be conflicting and confusing – What does this mean for young children? Is there a shift to play with technologies rather than with natural materials, a cultural phenomenon that will forever change childhood? What is the role of schools and families to provide access or not to these technologies? …And will this be “high quality” play? Will young children get so absorbed in the mechanical aspects of technology that they forget how to engage with each other in a critical medium of development – play? Can certain technologies actually support and or enhance play?

There is evidence that the use of technology and the glamour and hype of screen time (with computers, mobile devices, & TV) is potentially harmful and without proper adult guidance, may replace young children’s authentic play of manipulating objects, interacting other children, and time outdoors in active play. Excessive use of electronic media also has been credited with increase in the following, for example- obesity, attention deficit disorder, and violence. Those of us who are play advocates, parents, researchers, and teachers support efforts to “take back” childhood from a media saturated, fast paced world and for children to engage in good old-fashioned make-believe play time which extensive research supports as critical for the development of language, social skills, and self-regulation (Berk, Mann, & Ogan, 2006; Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2003; Singer & Singer, 2005).

But where can families and teachers of young children go to find more research-based information within a world flooded with marketing on the latest tech tools? Lisa Guernsey (2012) a concerned mother, but also a scholar, includes in her book: Screen time: How electronic media—from baby videos to educational software—affects your young child, a summary of the research on how electronic media impacts our children. She provides some clarifications regarding ages when children are most vulnerable and what families can do to play a more active part in children’s uses and time balanced with active play and effective technology uses. (see more of Lisa’s papers at

Other major national organizations and individuals consider the potential of 21st century media tools to enable children to express emerging ideas about their internal (feelings, imagination) and external (objects, people, places) worlds (see National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, 2012). The qualities for child learning and development of emerging digital literacies as well as traditional literacies (writing, drawing, gesture, creating with a graphic organizer, and play) can be considered as choices (see multi-literacies – New London Group, 1996). Those who look to the potentials of technologies make informed decisions about appropriate scaffolding with all literacy tools (high and low tech. tools). They believe that young children are capable of representing their ideas in creative, symbolic, and concrete forms with multiple media of all forms and in one hundred languages (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1998), such as – taking and using digital photos to research a topic, using software to create books, and engaging in web quests – expand children’s understandings of those arts and verbal and visual signs, symbols, as well as their information uses (Hartle, & Jaruszewicz, 2009; Labbo, 2000; Labbo, Sprague, Montero, & Font, 2000; Resnick, 2006; Yelland, Hill, & Mulheam, 2004 ).

Guidelines for technology and play balance

On March 2012, after three years of revisions based on input from members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College (2012) completed a revised position paper on technology for young children: Technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood programs serving children from birth to age eight. Examples of high quality practices, those that do NOT supplant but rather supplement and enhance play and learning can be found at <> and <>

Examples of Effective Practice

Technology That Supports Early Learning

The position paper offers guidance for the opportunities and challenges of the use of technology and interactive media. The key messages in this position statement include:

1) When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development;

2) Intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children;

3) Limitations on the use of technology and media are important;

4) Special considerations must be given to the use of technology with infants and toddlers;

5) Attention to digital citizenship and equitable access is essential; and

6) Ongoing research and professional development are needed.

To follow up on the key messages of the position paper on technology for young children and provide concrete examples of a balanced learning environment, Chip Donahue (2014) and colleagues created another resource: Technology and digital media in the early Years: Tools for teaching and learning. Chip is quoted as saying about this resource that authors present distinctions about the uses of technologies “….including the importance of developmentally appropriate practice; the important role of attentive, responsive caring adults; the importance of using media together; and the importance of using media to help kids engage in what they do best: explore and discover through play and hands-on activities.” One early learning and development center director who follows best practices reports that children in his center are engaged with all mediums in their play; the technology is there and available, but that the “…technology in the classrooms at the school is ‘almost invisible’ ” as seamless supports to all of the other engagement in authentic learning experiences. (Jackson, 2011).

Conclusion and recommendations

Rather than put blame on technologies as a “Godzilla” that stomps on young children’s play, this article provides resources and links to specific examples of classroom practices involving technology tools and interactive media. The intent is to stimulate future discussion about the potential to support young children’s play with BOTH natural materials and technologies in preschool and primary early learning settings, home, and after-school programs. Since technologies are a central part of society and may be even more so in the future, researchers, teachers and families will need to continually scrutinize relevant research on: how well, when, where and why use technology with young children (pros and cons). Guidelines are available for choosing appropriate play supports/ toys / natural materials/ technologies, such as how well the technology supports interaction with peers and adults, and multiple or open-ended ways to work or play with or without the technology. As with all aspects of child care and education guidelines must understood as just that “guidelines” and not directions. Decisions depend on responsible, thoughtful adults who know the individual children in their care.


Berk, L. E., Mann, T. D., & Ogan, A. T. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for development of self-regulation. In D. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play=Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Common Sense Media. (2013). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. <>

Donahue, C. (Ed.) (2014). Technology and digital media in the early Years: Tools for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Edwards, C. Gandini, L. Forman, G. (Eds.) (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach – advanced reflections, 2nd Ed. Ablex, Norwood N.J.

Guernsey, L. (2012). Screen time: How electronic media—from baby videos to educational software—affects your young child. Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books.

Hartle, L. & Jaruszewicz, C. (2009). Rewiring and networking language, literacy, and communication through the arts: Teacher’s and young children’s fluency to create with technology, pp187-205. In Narey, M.J. (Ed.).Making Meaning: Constructing Multimodal Perspectives of Language, Literacy, and Learning through Arts-based Early Childhood Education. NY, NY: Springer Publishing Company. (Volume in the series – Jalongo, M.R., Isenberg, J., & Fennimore, B. (Eds.). Educating the Young Child: Advances in Theory and Research, Implications for Practice.)

Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2003). Einstein never used flash cards: How our children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Jackson, S. (2011). Learning, Digital Media and Creative Play in Early Childhood. Spotlight on digital media and creative play in early childhood. Retrieved from the Internet at <see more at >

Labbo, L.D. (2000). 12 things young children can do with a talking book in a classroom computer center. Reading Teacher, 53(7), 542-546.

Labbo, L.D., Sprague, L., Montero, M.K., & Font, G. (2000, July). Connecting a computer center to themes, literature, and kindergartners’ literacy needs. Reading Online, 4 (1). Available:

NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. (2012). Technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Joint position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Latrobe, PA: Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Resnick, M. (2006). Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, Play, and the Creative Society In Singer, D., Golikoff, R., and Hirsh-Pasek, K. (eds.), Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press.

Singer, D., & Singer, J. L. (2005). Imagination and play in the electronic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yelland, N., Hill, S., & Mulheam, G. (2004). Children of the new millennium: Using information and communication technologies for playing and learning in the information age. International Journal of Learning, 11.


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