A Foundation in FUN
By JANET ZIMMERMAN
Streams of water splash from a plastic pitcher onto miniature mountains of cornstarch.
The controller of the mess — a 2-year-old girl with brunette ringlets — contorts her pudgy face into a mask of concentration. She’s been at it for more than an hour — record time for a toddler.
Over and over, she squishes the goopy mixture, then smoothes it on a table at the Youth Service Center in Riverside. The girl is oblivious to the mess in her hair, down the front of her orange tank top, on her matching huarache sandals. To her, it’s just plain fun. But Lisa Murphy, a preschool teacher turned educational motivator, knows it’s much more.
“It’s science,” said Murphy, who is better known as the Ooey Gooey Lady. “You’ve got action, reaction, cause, effect. You’re making a suspension, which is chemistry.”
Murphy is one of the driving forces behind a growing national and Inland movement to put the play back in childhood and preschool. She wants the focus on fun, not academics. She spreads her message at Ooey Gooey®-themed birthday parties, during play sessions at the park, in rooms full of educators.
“We’re feeling this pressure of getting (children) ready for kindergarten, when kids are tested,” Murphy said by phone. “You can push reading and writing till the cows come home, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to (hold a pencil) if their fingers aren’t strong from squeezing Play-Doh and squirting bottles of water.”
Speaking recently in Palm Springs, Riverside, San Bernadino and elsewhere across the country, Murphy promoted what experts have been saying for years: Play is the foundation of learning. It satisfies a child’s natural curiosity, which leads to exploration, discovery and mastery of concepts.
Mess with a mission
Murphy wants parents and teachers to put away the flash cards and rigid schedules. Give kids plenty of free time outside and let them get dirty, she said.
It’s a mess with a mission, said Dr. Bruce Perry, an author and authority on brain development who supports the power of play.
“If we convey a sense of disgust at the mud on their shoes and the slime on their hands, their discovery…will be diminished,” he wrote in Early Childhood Today magazine.
“The more you encourage creativity and tap into the child’s sense of fun, the easier it will be to introduce even greater challenges.”
Murphy’s tools for play-based learning are inexpensive and easy to get – shaving cream, Ivory soap, baking soda and vinegar, the cornstarch and water mixture she calls Ooblick.
The former San Diego resident also lets children paint with unusual objects –plastic dog chew toys, toilet plungers and turkey basters.
Even Play-Doh is academic, she said.
“When kids are squeezing it, they’re strengthening the small motor muscles they will eventually need to hold a pencil,” Murphy added.
“When they stretch it out and it’s still the same amount, that’s pr-math.”
Murphy avoids phrases such as “stop running” and “sit still” and “inside voices.”
Such expectations are developmentally inappropriate and ask too much of preschoolers, she said.
Sitting still and being quiet is not a marketable job skill. We must not put the emphasis on passive learning,” Murphy added.
“Everyday, preschool children need to be creating, moving, singing, discussing, observing, reading and playing.”
‘Not the norm’
That’s what they’re doing at the Youth Service Center, on the campus of Grnat Elementary School in Riverside, where the little girl made a mess mixing water and cornstarch.
Program director Jaimie West revamped the chool’s lesson plans after attending Murphy’s Ooey Gooey® seminar two years ago.
The center’s 30 preschoolers are allowed to explore and discover, inside and out, for as long as they want.
Their outdoor time isn’t limited, and they aren’t forced to sit for circle time.
Music is alwayas plaing and books are as likely to be read on the potty as they are in the classroom.
“This type of teaching is not the norm,” said West, a former preschool teacher.
On a recent morning, she set out a plastic platter heaped with slimy, cold spaghetti colored blue and green, as several children laid the individual strands of pasta on a table, West noted that they were inadvertently learning to sequence, a precursor to math.
Teaming up to move the spaghetti from the platter to different parts of the table was an exercise in cooperation.
“These social skills are more important than what we provide academically,” West said. “There are steps they need before they read or write.”