For Christie, learning is more than child’s play
It’s not surprising to see stacks of oversized children’s picture books, colorful toys and a bright yellow Big Bird in ASU professor James Christie’s office at ASU. This former kindergarten teacher has dedicated his life’s work to the study of play.
Christie teaches courses in language, literacy and early childhood education in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education’s Division of Curriculum and Instruction. He recently received the Brian Sutton-Smith Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Study of Play. The award recognizes his vastly respected work in this approach to early literacy.
Through his persistence in understanding how children learn language and literacy during playtime, Christie has published numerous articles, co-written books, edited college textbooks and lectured internationally on the role of play in learning.
“I’ve focused my research on how play contributes to children’s early education. It’s somewhat controversial. Some play purists think it’s interfering too much with play,” he says.
He strives to enrich children’s play settings with academic content by developing play-based curricula. Educationally related play takes more planning and interaction by the teacher, Christie says, but the effort pays off.
His research has shown that children learn more about reading and writing with increased teacher involvement during playtime.
“I love watching kids play, and I try to figure out how to take advantage of it from an educational perspective,” he says. “With just a little bit of planning and engineering by the teachers, we can enrich it. I really enjoy getting out and working with teachers. We’re able to bring tremendous resources to the schools.”
“Jim is a wonderful colleague, and his work in the study of play – and the development of play-enriched curricula – has significantly contributed to our understanding of ways to approach learning for young children,” says Maryann Santos de Barona, interim director of the Division of Curriculum and Instruction. “He works tirelessly to provide professional development training for teachers who work with young children, particularly ESL preschool students.”
Christie also is a co-director of the Mohave Desert Early Literacy Coalition Early Reading First project, a three-year, $4.4 million project to improve school readiness for 280 culturally-diverse children in Head Start and Reading First programs in rural public schools. The program will implement Houghton Mifflin’s play-based pre-kindergarten curriculum, Where Bright Futures Begin, in northwest Arizona schools.
For this project, he regularly travels to work with teachers in rural schools in Bullhead City, Mohave Valley and the Fort Mohave Indian Nation, which exhibit pervasive poverty and unemployment and more than a third of the students are English-language learners.
Santos de Barona says Christie and his colleagues developed an impressive collection of video clips to help these preschool teachers learn multiple strategies to teach core pre-reading skills.
“The techniques presented not only are very useful, but also highlight the many ways that children can be easily engaged in the learning process,” she says.
Christie began teaching kindergarten in the early 1970s in Bakersfield, Calif., after getting his undergraduate degree in psychology from University of California Berkeley and his master’s at Syracuse University in New York. He admitted with a chuckle that he only chose to attend Syracuse because it’s where football great Larry Czonka played the gridiron, but there he was first exposed to Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget’s theories on children’s intellectual development and the relationship between play and cognitive development.
Piaget’s work became the foundation for constructivism, which argues that knowledge is internalized by the learner.
These theories supported what Christie noticed as a kindergarten teacher: Children learn during free playtime. He embraced the theory and infused reading and writing into play as he watched an escalating trend to shorten playtime in kindergarten.
“I became convinced that the kids were learning more in that one hour than any other part of the curriculum,” he says. “If we don’t make connections between play and the academic curriculum, play is going to disappear in preschools. My opinion is that the play gets better if you add reading, writing, math and other academic content.”
In his early research career at the University of Kansas, Christie focused on children’s play and its effect on cognitive and social development.
He later taught courses on elementary and early reading, but it wasn’t until he came to ASU in 1988 that he finally could merge his two academic interests.
“Now I get some synergy between my research and my teaching,” he says.
In 2000, Christie took a sabbatical to pursue science-based reading research, which has since dominated federal literacy programs under the No Child Left Behind Act. The movement uses the best scientific research to guide the teaching of reading, and Christie was caught up in the approach.
From 2003 to 2006, he was co-director of the $3.5 million Arizona Centers of Excellence in Early Education (ACE3) Early Reading First project.
He also helped write McGraw-Hill’s “Doors to Discovery” play-based literacy curriculum, which was used in the project. The vocabulary-building program was tested in Somerton and San Luis, Ariz., where 95 percent of the children speak English as a second language.
“The curriculum connects play activities with books and makes play richer,” Christie says.
In the “Build it Big” unit, for example, the teacher does shared reading using oversized construction-themed books with vivid illustrations of heavy equipment and construction tools. The books expand the children’s vocabulary, introduce shapes, and emphasize safety. Wordless books and learning centers, where the children play at building a house, reinforce the use of the new vocabulary.
“This gave the children a wonderful opportunity to practice and consolidate the skills they were learning in the academic part of the program,” Christie says. “It was really fun making this curriculum, and we tried it out very successfully.”
Christie is publishing an article about the children’s gains in vocabulary and alphabet knowledge using the curriculum with Karen Burstein of Southwest Institute. He also is working with Jay Blanchard, a professor in psychology in education, and Kim Atwill, a researcher at McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning), to follow the students though school to compare them with other children in traditional Head Start programs.
His expertise in play also has been sought by Fisher Price toys in development of interactive books, which were given to the children in his initial study.
He also worked as an educational adviser for Sesame Street Magazine, and in 2005 he met and worked with Big Bird while working as adviser for the children’s television show.
Verina Palmer Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Lou Fulton College of Education