Are You Afraid of Play?

Time and time again, research has come down firmly on the side of play in early childhood.  We have arrived at the most common sense of truths:  to live a self-actualized, whole life, children play.  To learn and grow, children play. The ocean cannot do without salt and the children cannot do without play.

But, somehow, this isn’t the answer we adults want. Play?  This joyful, wonderful, magical thing is what is responsible for the cognitive growth and physical health of my child? That’s the answer? That can’t be! After all, children like play too much. In fact, you couldn’t get a child to stop playing if you tried, at least not for long! Also, on the surface it might seem simple, but how do you measure play? It’s much easier to measure what letter sounds my child knows and how high he can count.  Now, those are things I can really help my child learn! And everyone knows that those are the things that will help my child succeed later on in “real” school, right? Oh, I’ll still let him “play” sometimes, when he needs a “break” from “real learning.”

Whoa! Let’s take a deep breath. We, as a society, need one. If you’ve ever followed the train of thought above, even just once, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there.

Research supports play based learning in the early childhood classroom. But we live in a society where embracing this research can be scary for parents.  When was the last time I heard “I know that learning through play and projects is important, but are students really getting the basics?” I hear this, or something like it, all of the time. And when these parents say “basics,” they mean reading, writing, arithmetic, and other “academic” skills. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m absolutely in favor of seeking a program that offers experiences in a healthy balance of content areas, from literacy to the arts. I can point to the materials on our shelves and explain each one’s purpose, whether for the development of numeracy, geometry, the arts, literacy, science, sensory, or social-emotional skills. I can give an overview of our daily schedule, highlighting times when the skills or ideas they are asking about are most often practiced.

But when was the last time I heard, “I saw during circle time that students get to practice pre-reading, writing, and numeracy skills like counting, rhyming, singing, graphing, responding to questions, tracing letters, and matching beginning letter sounds. But how do I know that students are getting the basics?” And when they mean basics, they are talking about the actual basics, ones based on the learners themselves and not the content areas, basics that are abundantly present in children’s play: dispositions for learning such as creativity, persistence, belonging, well-being, initiative, responsibility, and building relationships as knowledge and skills increase—learning how to learn and taking ownership. This is the much more important question, and the one that people should be asking, as these real “basics” are harder to observe in a short period of time.  Yet I’ve never had anyone ask me this or any variation of it.

Why is that? Is it because we’re all just a little bit afraid?  We ignore our own memories, observations of our own child, recent research—all in favor of fear.  We feel justified; after all, isn’t it logical to think, “I’m a successful adult. I want my child to be a successful adult. Play is extra for me and therefore it’s extra for my child.”

We do this because we want what’s best for our child. We want to give him or her the “edge” that will reverse the downward socio-economic trend of today’s middle class families, and jettisoning play is what the other families are doing to get ahead. The irony of all of this is, of course, that in trying to do what is best for our child, by sidelining play we do just the opposite.

There’s a saying that people are only afraid of that which they do not understand.  If we seek to understand the true impact and importance of play, we won’t be afraid to protect its presence in our child’s life.


I Am Not Afraid of Play

…because the end result of my children’s education is not only to be filled with knowledge, but to be self-actualized people, “who cannot only think, who can feel, who are concerned about others, who can develop and utilize all their potentials as persons.” (C.H. Patterson)

…because research shows that play is correlated with better physical and mental health, better social bonds, and even better test scores. Play improves creativity, problem solving, conceptual thinking, short and long term cognitive development, language and literacy, executive functioning, socialization, coping and emotional regulation,  and motor skills. New research continually expands on these benefits.  I can honor the wisdom, time, and expense of these wise adults who were able to rediscover what the children already know.

…because there is no play vs. learning dichotomy.  Young children learn best through play. Children can have both play and learning. For the young, the terms “play” and “toy” mean what “work” and “materials” means to the adult.

…because even though I am an adult and I do not need to play the way children do, my heart remembers the child’s heart. And the child’s heart cannot do without play.

As a three year old recently told me, “I love play ‘cause I love it.”