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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Let the Children Play

Mar 31, 2014 01:50AM

Something odd is going on in the lives of many young (pre-k and kindergarten age) children. They don’t get much of a chance to play, especially in school. Yet, researchers from all over the world have established beyond a doubt that young children need plenty of time for creative, free play, to grow up healthy. Not only that, but when children play, they are developing the vital skills they will need for later academic success. It seems though that play has been given a “time out”, so what’s going on?

Over the last few decades, several trends have converged that have reduced the amount of time and the quality of child’s play. Family life has become busier, more scheduled and more regimented. Who has time to play? Children spend vastly more time in front of screens at home and in school. Sure, they might be having fun and even learning something, but they’re not developing the range of skills that they would if they were truly playing. At the same time, many neighborhoods feel less safe, so parents are less likely to tell the children to go out and play.

The biggest factor crowding play out of the lives of young children is globalization and the fear that young people won’t be able to compete in the global economy. Americans tend to like more, better and faster, so our response has been to emphasize academics at the expense of time for play for young children. As a result of No Child Left Behind, and more recently with the Common Core Standards, pre-k and kindergarten have become mainly about academic readiness. On top of this, our leaders, from the President on down, are calling for universal pre-k and kindergarten in the belief that children, especially disadvantaged children, need a leg up.

So what’s the problem? Don’t kids need to be prepared for serious learning? Of course. The issue is how young children learn best. A growing body of research suggests that the heavy emphasis on early academic learning reflects a misunderstanding of how young children actually engage the world. It turns out that play is key. As adults, we tend to conflate play with leisure. It’s what we do after our work is finished. But for little children, play is their work. When children play, they are developing the cognitive, emotional and social skills they will need for later academic success.

One could see the turn toward early academics in many schools, as an attempt to help disadvantaged children overcome the limits of their environments. Indeed, there is evidence that highly structured academic settings can give these children a boost. However, research also shows that the effect may be relatively short lived, and that, young children who have generous opportunity for creative free play at school perform better in the long run. It’s partly a question of balance between play and academic work. In many schools, the balance has been tipped to favor academics, to the virtual exclusion of play. Even recess, a time-honored opportunity for children to play, is disappearing in many schools.

It’s tempting to see child’s play as something sweet but ultimately frivolous, which is mainly the province of relatively affluent children. In this view, play—especially for poor kids—must be sacrificed in order to prepare children for a complex and demanding future. Not so. We’re doing our children a serious disservice by taking away the chance to play. This is not a matter of nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time. It’s a question of how we understand what childhood is all about and how to best equip children for the future. Right now, we’re conducting a massive experiment on young children, and given all we know about the essential role of play, the results might not be what’s best for their future and ours.

So, what to do? The claim that play is essential for young children, and that many schools are overemphasizing academics at the expense of play, challenges an entrenched paradigm. The best option for concerned parents and others is to investigate the research on play, then draw their own conclusions. Two good places to start are the Alliance for Childhood ( and the U.S. Play Coalition ( It’s a good bet that once parents find out the whole story, they too will agree—let the children play.

Steve Smith is director of advancement for the Washington Waldorf School, in Bethesda, Maryland:


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