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When children go to preschool, they can learn many things. Most parents want to focus on A-B-C and the 1-2-3. But Esther McDonald believes learning P-L-A-Y can be just as important.

“Have any of you had to defend lately, math? The parents come to you and say ‘I don’t want my child doing math.’ ” McDonald said to a room full of preschool educators on Saturday. “Have any of you had to defend reading? No? Have any of you had to defend spelling?”

But they do have to defend things like finger painting, silly songs and playing dress-up. As the keynote speaker at the Early Childhood Education Conference at Klamath Community College this weekend, McDonald advocated silly songs, finger painting and dress-up can be just as important as core academics. She brought her knowledge of brain science and more than 40 years in education to help educators and local care providers with professional training.

When those professionals have to defend art, music and play to parents who want their young children counting and spelling, McDonald said it’s important to make the lesson relevant for the parents.

“When you have art, you’re teaching expanding their attention span and helping them understand how to see things differently, how to pay attention to detail,” she said. “What careers would that be helpful for? A doctor. You want them to pay attention to detail. You want them to see things differently in case it doesn’t look right when they open us up.”

McDonald quoted a study that looked at the IQ of young children in relation to preschool. At age 5, the study found those who went to school with a focus on play had an IQ of 105, versus an IQ of 85 in students who attended the academic preschool.

“The children attending academic preschools: higher test anxiety, lower self-esteem and more negative attitude toward school,” McDonald said, quoting another study.

“This is why play is so important,” she said. “It’s not play in organized sports. It’s play. It’s unstructured. They learn cooperation. They learn competition. They learn friendship. They learn respect. That’s where they learn.”

Also during this time children develop a part of their brains called executive function by engaging the logical part of the brain.

“When your emotions go crazy and you get to flight or fight, this part, for all intents and purposes disappears,” McDonald said of the logical part of the brain. Then the part of the brain in fight or flight mode takes over. “And this is where we go and where our children go when we’re just overwhelmed.”

To get back to the logical part of the brain children, and adults, can use the practice of “name it and tame it,” McDonald said. Naming the emotion activates the logical part of the brain. It engages executive function.

“This part is the executive function for children. This part is the part that’s developed through the various things we’re going to talk about,” McDonald said, like play, art and music. “This is how the magic of childhood produces effective adults.”