Centering play and inclusivity in our communities

An early childhood educator with a child on her lap sits outside while children play with sticks and logs around them.

by Janet McLaughlin

NAEYC and our fellow state affiliates are all talking about play right now. This month’s Professional Learning Institute conference in Cleveland included a focus on play. The latest issue of Young Children is all about play. The newest edition of NAEYC’s Developmentally Appropriate Practices centers play as the basis for all learning.

Play is an astonishing, beautiful phenomenon, especially in our highly structured society. When children are given space to play, it is natural, open-ended, and unconstrained by time. Despite some toy marketers’ best efforts, play can’t be scaled or commodified. It’s about creativity, not control. This is something early childhood educators know well. Educators’ daily practice is to create conditions for play.

Another fact early childhood educators know: access to play is inequitable. Privileged children encounter opportunities for play far more readily than lower income and BIPOC children do, writes Ijumaa Jordan, who visits early childhood education programs across the country for her research.

I am thinking about play, play equity, and inclusion in relation to June’s celebrations of Juneteenth and Pride Month. Juneteenth marks the conclusion of centuries of horrific chattel slavery. It’s a celebration of Black American culture and history, and has been celebrated in Black communities for decades before it became a federal holiday last year. It marks the first federal holiday in which Black American life is centered.

The core of Pride is celebration and love of LGBTQIA individuals within a community, who historically have been asked or forced to disguise their true selves. And while community members who identify as cis and straight may show up as allies, the center belongs to folks who identify as LGBTQIA.

When communities actively and joyfully celebrate Pride and Juneteenth, we reinforce the idea that everyone has the right to be their true selves, and everyone deserves to have the light shine on them. It mobilizes all of us to notice and address the many disparities that continue to exist when the celebration is over, to keep growing.

We know society works better, is more fun, and is far healthier when it is inclusive. When we all have healthy and fluid opportunities to be in and out of the center. When we all can safely explore who we are, and try on who we want to be. Play is how children learn this.

We know society works better, is more fun, and is far healthier when it is inclusive. When we all have healthy and fluid opportunities to be in and out of the center. When we all can safely explore who we are, and try on who we want to be. Play is how children learn this.

At VTAEYC, we are committed to equity and excellence in early childhood education. That means we are working to give every child in Vermont opportunities to play, explore, and grow. And it means that we support our early childhood educators, nested within communities, in finding opportunities for inclusion and celebration with children and families, as well as themselves.

On October 13 and 14, we will celebrate 50 years of VTAEYC at our Annual Conference – held in person for the first time in two years. Our overarching theme is about how early childhood educators are Making History and Shaping the Future – and our workshops are all about sparking creativity in the classroom and in ECE leadership. In other words, we’re thrilled to find opportunities for play and growth together.

And we will honor members of Vermont’s early childhood community – including the 2022 Early Childhood Educator of the Year – who, through their daily work and leadership in the field, bring the joy and light of inclusive practice to our shared mission.

Enjoy these summer days, and I can’t wait to see you in person in the fall.

Janet McLaughlin in her backyard peach tree

Janet McLaughlin is the Executive Director of VTAEYC.

This post was adapted for a general audience and published as a commentary on VTDigger.org. Click here to read and share.