“I basically get to spy on kids as they play,” says Haeny Yoon, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education.

Which sounds easy, but “I think the eternal question is to show the intellectual worth of play,” says Yoon, a former primary school teacher, who joined TC’s faculty in 2014. “People don’t realize how relevant and generative play is to the lives of young people.”

Yoon has made such an effective case for that relevance that she is receiving the Emerging Scholar Award from the Critical Perspectives of Early Childhood Education Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.

The award goes annually to a “junior scholar” with a “trajectory of research” that draws attention to early childhood learning “in the larger context of educational research.”  In its letter to Yoon, the award committee praised her work for the “critical perspectives” it brings to the advancement of early childhood education, adding that, “Your work is truly shining and already making a great impact in the field.”  

While an advocate for play, Yoon doesn’t dismiss the importance of structured activities in childhood development. Nevertheless, her research indicates that an over-emphasis on planned learning can compromise the natural curiosity and creativity emanating from extemporaneous play.

The possibilities that emerge during free play as a child, Yoon points out, are similar to “how we learn to engage as adults.”

Professor Emerita Celia Genishi, the former coordinator of TC Childhood Education program, was among those nominating Yoon for the award.

She enjoyed the support of TC Early Childhood Doctoral candidates Tran Nguyen Templeton and Amanda Reeves Fellner as well as Cassie Jo Brownell, an early childhood Ph.D candidate at Michigan State University.

“Because of her sustained faith in the moral ideals of public school, Haeny has conducted all of her research to date actively within diverse public school classrooms that serve underserved populations of minority children,” the four nominators wrote the AERA in the letter of recommendation.

“She captures the ways that children deploy their funds of knowledge through play and literacy acts along with the thoughtful maneuvers of their teachers to provide the freedom and space for them to do so.”

Click here to read about TC scholars being honored at this year’s AERA meeting, held in New York City, and for a listing of all TC presentations.