fairy dust teaching

The Undeniable Power of Play and Wonder in Learning

In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we connect with Sally Haughey Founder & CEO of Fairy Dust Teaching. Sally dives into the topic of how wonder plays a role in children’s play and how educators can continue to spark wonder in children’s play to help foster children’s natural curiosity.

Sally tells our listeners the importance of encouraging and supporting the natural wonder of play and why it’s so vital for children’s development. She continues that children are naturally curious and as an educator we should support their curiosity rather than pushing it aside in order to meet benchmarks, standardized tests and societal expectations. Although learning the ABC’s is important, sparking curiosity in children at a young age will continue for the rest of the child’s life and in turn, create a life-long learner!

If education is an art form, then each child is actually an active participant in their own learning.

Sally Haughey Founder & CEO of Fairy Dust Teaching.

Sally’s Tips for Supporting and Promoting Wonder through Play:

  • Provide a Safe Place for Children. In order for children to explore, to experiment, to test their theories without shame a safe place for children to do so should be provided.
  • Educators Can Act More of a Catalyst Than a Teacher. Educators can catalyze the learning and wisdom in children rather than practice rote memorization.
  • Educate Families. It’s important as educators that we help families understand that there is so much more to understand in children’s learning and development than rote-memorization.
  • Let Children Make Decisions. Whether it’s letting children choose their activity or what they’re going to wear, it’s important to have children make their own choices to help children engage in the activity they’re most interested in.
  • Repetition is OK. If you notice children are choosing the same activity or center in the classroom over and over again, that’s ok! Rather than forcing a child to choose a different activity to increase variety in their learning, let’s have children choose the activity they want, even if it’s the same one. The child will build strong neural pathways in their brain and become masters at that activity. This also builds attention span!

Sally mentions a great resource she has been loving is Seth Godin‘s manifestation on education that can be found on YouTube. Sally and her team at Fairy Dust will also be hosting a summit called Free to Play this July 12-16 which will feature guest speakers discussing what play-based learning really means and how to facilitate it. This summit is completely free for the first 24 hours- a fantastic and accessible resource to all of the educators interested!

Want to connect with Sally and The Fairy Dust Teaching team? You can visit their website, Facebook, Pinterest and, Instagram.

Want to Track Children’s Learning Through Photos and Videos?

We’d love to show you how HiMama can help educators document children’s learning and development through photos, videos, collages and more! Did you know that parents are increasingly evaluating childcare centers on whether they offer digital parental communication, photo and video updates, and contactless check-in and billing? The HiMama child care app helps to streamline your digital parent communications, join the family today and get a quote!

Episode 256 Transcripts:


Us shoving them where they don’t want to be is not following the unfolding, just like the child learning to crawl so they can walk. The same happens in play. We’re building the neural pathways for learning.


Sally, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you. I’m so excited to be here!


We’re so excited to have you. To our listeners: We have on the show today Sally Haughey. She’s the founder and CEO of Fairy Dust Teaching. We’re going to talk to her about the undeniable power of play and wonder in learning, something that I’m sure all of you are also passionate about. And as always, Sally, let’s start off learning a little bit about you. Tell us about yourself.


Yeah, well, I started Fairy Dust Teaching in 2010 as a kindergarten blogger and really found this remarkable phenomenon called a global community. And that lit me up – like, totally sent me flying into, “There’s so much potential.” But what actually brought me into education itself, which I think is kind of interesting, is I went to art school and I was a painter. And I did huge paintings. And I still paint, love to paint.

But my son was in kindergarten. And his kindergarten teacher called me one day and said, “I need to talk to you.” And so I went up to see her. And she sat me down in a chair and pulled out a folder of worksheets – and this was in the 80’s, just to give you a time frame – she said, “He cannot keep in the lines. And he can’t write his name legibly. He cannot move on to first grade.”

And for me, that was a moment of reckoning. It changed my life literally because my son was articulate; he had a monstrous vocabulary; he loves storytelling. Like, he had all of the signs of being this brilliant child. Yet the teacher was telling me that he couldn’t do these fine motor things.

So, I marched out of there and literally removed him from school, put him in full play mode and started studying education. And I at the time was working at my church as a church secretary’s assistant. And a position came open at the church, Mother’s Day Out. And I said, “I’ll take it!” So, that’s really how my educational career started, is for a passion for my own children and how the educational system wasn’t seeing them. So, it’s kind of interesting, yeah.


Well, I’m sure that’s a story that would resonate with our listeners who all understand where you’re coming from with that. And so that’s a good segue, I think, actually into my next question around wonder and what role wonder plays in child development.


Yeah, so I thought a lot about this. And I think it starts with play. Like, the foundation is play and that we know all children are wired for play. Like, I’m in Paris, France right now, [and] I was walking along and I could hear children playing on a playground and it sounded exactly like my home in Oklahoma. It’s a universal drive inherent in being human. And children are born knowing how to play. And children with other languages can play together.

And I think what sparks play is wonder. An example I’ll give is, a three-month-old baby sees a moving object. And that wonder of looking at that object and the eyes start tracking it. So, the development starts coming in. A six-month-old baby sees a shiny object. I mean, if you’ve had children, you know what I’m talking about. And they’re like, “What does that feel like?” And they start reaching for it. A nine-month-old starts crawling towards objects.

Wonder, interest, curiosity. Whatever you call it, I call it wonder. It’s driving development. And what I began to look at was how intriguing it is that we celebrate children when they’re babies and toddlers with that wonder, that interest driving play. And we engage in it and we mimic it back to them as this grand delight. We know it’s building their large, small motor skills, their eyes tracking all of it. We delight in their delight.

But why is it that we abandon this when children become articulate? Like, all of a sudden they can start talking to us and they can start using crayons. And we’re like, “Well, we better put the ABC’s in,” or, “Can they count now?” It’s like play becomes less important.

So, that’s one of the things I’m curious about, [is] how we can shift that perspective, of we honor it in the early, early, early years, but around three years old, we start looking differently at play.


And I guess I’m curious to know, why do you think that that is, that we do that? Is it getting ready for kindergarten, this whole concept?


I think it goes back to – and I have to tip my hat right off the back to Seth Godin, an online marketer who I really enjoy reading his blog. And he’s talked about the factory model of school. And I think this has trickled down tremendously. And basically, he asserts, “What is school for? The education is not the same as learning,” which I think is very intriguing. He says, “Education in its current form for us is about compliance and obedience.”

So, if you think about it – and there is a lot of history here, so I’m simplifying dramatically – but public school was invented to create compliancy for a growing economy, etc. So, I think that this view of the child being an empty vessel and we’re filling them with information and, like a factory, processing them.

Like my son, it felt like he didn’t fit the standards that were there. So, they were saying, “He has to be reprocessed. He not meeting the mark.” So, I think that pressure going down, the underlying feeling is, “Sooner is better.” And I think it’s just the sooner the better. Like, I don’t know how it was with your kids, but when my eldest daughter didn’t start walking till 14 months. Around 11 months, “Is your child walking? Oh, mine started walking at nine months.” So, it’s like, sooner is better. “Is your child talking? How many words are they saying?” Sooner is better.

And so it’s like now the sooner our children achieve a milestone, the better, rather than trusting their process and their development. And I think it’s really dangerous and persuasive across our industry.


Yeah, it’s interesting. And I’ve never heard that before but I like that distinction of education and learning being different. And when you explain it in that way, it makes a lot of sense. And I know you talk about teaching as a living, breathing art form. Can you explain what you mean by that?


Yeah, so if we look at our current system being that children are empty and need to be filled and that even an educator as successful as they have a compliant class that is achieving those benchmarks. On the other hand is the idea that the child’s mind is already holding incredible, amazing information. Like the child is fully loaded, born. And if you’ve had more than one child, you know they’re not identical. They have distinct personalities, distinct ways of being.

So, if we honor a child as being a full human being and that there’s something in there to… I’m trying to think of the quote… it’s like their mind is like a fire to be kindled, that there’s something already active there. That if education is like an art form, that each child is actually an active participant in their own learning.

And I have to bring the best example I have of this, [which] was in art school. My professor, Dr. Manhart, at the University of Tulsa, and he was my clay professor. And he was to this day one of the most extraordinary educators I’ve had the privilege of being under his tutelage.

What he did was he introduced the clay to me as a medium of self-expression. And he shared his knowledge about it. So, like, he would tell me, “Okay, you’ve got to slam it harder to get out the bubbles or it’s going to blow up in the kiln.” Or I loved hand building, he’d go, “You need an armature here or it’s going to collapse when it’s drying overnight.”

He would just share what I needed to know to be fully empowered with the clay. But he never once told me what my clay should look like. He left it to me. He literally walked beside me as a guide and assisted it when I needed it, when it was really important.

And what I think is so living and vibrant about it is that it was a safe place where I literally failed over and over and over again. I tested my ideas in clay and failed. I experimented. I explored what was possible with clay. And it took a long time for me actually to succeed. But there was no make-wrong; there was no failure in my exploration.

And I think this is what makes education a living, breathing art form, is that we’re providing a safe place for children to explore, to experiment, to test their ideas and their theories without shame. And really, in the current educational model, I don’t know that many of us have even experienced it to be able to provide it, that it’s something I’m a stand that catches fire globally for children, that we can be more catalysts than teachers. I’m even not really fond of the name “teacher”. I associate it with being a factory worker. I am not teaching – I am catalyzing the wisdom and brilliance of the child in front of me.


Yeah, the title “teacher” almost goes well how you described “education” being defined. So yeah, that I like the “catalyst” term a lot more, for sure, in helping to facilitate learning. And on that note, what do you see as some of the challenges that might get in the way of a more play-oriented learning environment? And what are some of the things that educators can do to help preserve and promote play?


I think, honestly, what comes right to my mind is that we have a challenge that we’ve always had. We know the research on play – it’s been out there for decades. I did an interview with David Elkind at one point and he said, “All of this has been for naught. The needle hasn’t changed; it’s still the same.”

So, I think that we’ve been in this real challenge to advocate for the power of play and that defending play is difficult. Even now, with parents worried that their children had learning loss during the pandemic, it’s like, inside that factory model, I think play is not enough and it will never be enough. We actually have to educate parents to [the idea that] there is something different than acquisition of rote learning.

So, there’s three essential things that I’ve uncovered in my research on play that I think are fundamental. Because we know play has essentially… if its play, it’s self-selected; it’s self-initiated; it’s self-actualization. It’s not something that’s being… if you’re telling a child what to do in their play, that’s not pure play. Pure play supported by an educator is unbelievably academic.

So, I want to just give you a little taste of what I mean. So, let’s say self-selection: that means they walk into the classroom, they get to follow their own impulse. They get to choose where they play. And that’s part of decision-making. There’s this, if you look at the limbic system, that positive emotion of being where you want to be helps the child to engage in the activity powerfully.

And one thing I see in my teaching career is I’d hear teachers go, “I’m going to have to start really doing population control because a little Sarah is going to blocks every single day and she can’t do that anymore.” When actually her going to blocks every single day and repeating the building and experimenting and whatever her ideas and theories that she’s working out in the blocks is building neural pathways in the brain over and over again.

We know repetition is like walking across a field of wheat. First time, it barely moves the wheat. But after a year of walking that same path, there’s going to be hard dirt underneath. That’s what happens in the neural pathways with repetition.

So, we want to support children’s interest, what they’re wondering around, because it’s going to support their brain development, executive functioning. And research is out that executive functioning is one of the primary ways they can predict academic success. So, a child’s ability to remain focused, choosing what they love, staying there focused, I mean, is building attention span.

Us shoving them where they don’t want to be is not following the unfolding, just like the child learning to crawl so they can walk. The same happens in play: we’re building the neural pathways for learning. And I know that maybe kind of a deep answer but I think that’s something really important, that we understand the brain science behind play, so we can support it powerfully as a guide, like my professor was to me.


Yeah, it’s almost like you could flip the perception from parents being concerned that play is not enough and is distracting from education to, as a parent, you should be concerned that education is the priority in terms of the traditional, more rote learning education because that that should be concerning to you as a parent, if your child isn’t participating in that more self-directed play because of all the amazing learning that’s happening, as you just described.


Yeah, exactly. And I think it’s this whole movement of what about… we know oral language is the foundation of literacy. So, children at risk are the children who don’t have parents talking to them because they’re in survival. I worked with underprivileged children through Head Start for many years. And they’re literally trying to figure out where the next meal comes. Or, how are they going to keep from being evicted from their home? So, to engage in a conversation with their child may be more demanding.

And I think it’s unfortunate that, again, that factory model looked at, “Okay, we’ve got to make sure the brain gets filled with all the data so they’re prepared for school,” rather than looking at the truth: children at risk need a deeply attached human being who’s asking, “What matters to you?”

We need to be treating children with the same respect we want for ourselves. And I learned this really powerfully, working with children at risk, that they don’t trust you right off the bat. They’re looking for someone who’s truthfully, authentically, powerfully there. And yet we hold children as partial human beings that are becoming when they’re actually full human beings now. And I have to say thank you, Reggio Emilia approach, for that thought. It’s amazing.


I can’t help but make the analogy, or maybe more of like an extension of this, into adulthood – which is, I know, an increasing conversation that’s happening in some places – of, after you’ve gone through this traditional education system, going to get a corporate job as being kind of like your end goal. But actually, that’s also quite risky because who’s to say that whatever your job is or your employment is going to be stable?

Whereas if you go a more entrepreneurial route, which I can kind of relate to some of the things you’re saying in terms of focusing on what matters to you and following your interests and your passions, is in a lot of ways, like, you’re learning more that way, as well.

And I guess I just bring that up because it’s interesting because it’s almost like an extension of what you’re learning and how you’re behaving as a young child through to adulthood and how the education system might feed into a lot of the things folks struggle with later in life, as well.


I think it does, I think you’ve nailed it. And that why in the first seven years of life would we want to create a situation where we’re saying, “Your innate need to play is no longer valued. You need to sit in a chair and be quiet. Your innate need to explore and to experiment is no longer valid. You have to tell me what you’re doing. Or you have to do this pre-made, teacher-directed activity.”

It’s like we wipe it out with good intention. Like, I worked in an academic kindergarten setting where all the teachers there were pretty much into hands-on learning and worksheets. But hands-on learning is a teacher-directed activity. Their hearts were gold; they loved the children. They just thought they were doing what was best for the children. I think we live in this misunderstanding of who young children are and what they need. And I think that’s been the challenge in play-based education, for sure.


Yeah, and that’s almost the tragic part about it, is I think for most folks their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing. We’re just not spending the time on the right things.


Yeah, and I think once you see it… and also, we don’t have a lot of role models out there. I think we have Reggio Emilia approach; we have Montessori; we have some Waldorf education, some systems out there that show us what you really well-supported play looks like. But in the public system, which I worked a lot of my career in, there was not a lot of modeling. So, it can also, for an educator, feel overwhelming. “How do I make this transition to child-led from teacher-led?”

And again, the other thing I think about [is] the factory model that Seth Godin brought out, which I, again, just highly recommend everyone read his blog on education, is that parent ego is at stake here. So, when a child is compliant, conforms and gets the good check marks, the parents are good parents. When the child isn’t conforming, isn’t living up to what the school system is asking, there’s a failure with the parents.

And now, currently in the US, a failure with the educator. When I left teaching, the assessments of the children were on my permanent record. So, it really then puts teachers and parents in a certain predicament, right? And the children are the ones that pay for it.


So, you’ve mentioned this article from Seth Godin on education. Any other resources that you might recommend to our listeners who want to read or learn more about this subject or anything related?


I highly recommend Seth Godin’s manifesto on education. He wrote a manifesto on education that I think over four million people have read. And he also did a TED Talk, which is extraordinary. So, I highly recommend that just for really getting… he is so articulate in making visible the system we’re living in and why it’s not working.

And so I would just say, to really get a fresh view of it… and it’s empowering to know, when you hear parents concerned about their child knowing the ABCs or their phonics or whatever, to know exactly where that’s coming from and the pressure they’re under so you can have compassion and empathy and then speak powerfully to it.


Awesome, sounds like worth checking out – I know I’m going to. And I also heard you have an online summit coming up called the Free To Play Summit. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Yeah, so this is our eighth year putting on a conference or a summit. I’m a creative, so I change names. But this is Free To Play Summit is featuring speakers from around the world and really high-level conversations about what it means to be play-based.

We have Alfie Kohn, who has written for years on the social-emotional needs of children, really powerful conversation. We also have Stuart Brown, who talks about his… I mean, both these – all of them, actually – like, I can’t get over what they’ve shared, is so groundbreaking and so compelling.

Like, again, if you want to come and just… we have it for free for the first 24 hours every day. When people register, we will send you kind of an itinerary so you can see what each session is going to offer. So, if you don’t have much time, you can map it out now and take advantage of those conversations. But it’s going to give you a really inspiring and practical view of what it means to be play-based. Yeah, really incredible.


Yeah, love it, sounds inspirational. And I always find those are the best summits or events is when you just feel really excited and full of energy coming out of them. And it sounds like that’s one of those. And Sally, before we wrap up, where can our listeners go to get more information about your work or maybe get in touch with you if they want to learn more?


Yeah, so just go to www.FairyDustTeaching.com. And you’ll find the Summit information there or here. And then also lots of blog posts and articles and also a contact form, if you want to get in contact with me.


Wonderful. Sally, thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast and for all the amazing work you’re doing to get the word out about the undeniable power of play and wonder in learning. And thank you so much for sharing that personal story about why you’re so passionate about this.


Thank you. And thank you for all that you all do. I just love HiMama and your podcast. And yeah, I really appreciate you all, as well.


Awesome. Thanks for joining us, Sally.

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!