A recent article by Lea Winerman, “Play in peril,” (Monitor on Psychology; September, 2009) outlines the importance of play for intellectual and emotional development in children—as well as the reasons why play is nevertheless in steep decline.
Kids get significantly less playtime than they did in years past, and one of the chief reasons distills down to parental, and societal, fears of being left behind. In response to such fears, preschoolers and kindergarteners are increasingly being subjected to “academic learning” rather than experiential, or play-based learning. We try to pour math and reading into our kids, getting them more and more ready for faster learning (which we mistake for smarter or better learning).
In fact, research shows that kids who had play-based learning environments in preschool are just as good on academic achievement in first grade as were kids who went to “academic” preschools; the big difference? Kids from the “academic” preschools were more anxious.
When we combine fears of being left behind, with companies working to exploit our fears, we get a huge “edutainment” industry making toys to supposedly quicken our kids… however, although these companies have grown exponentially in recent years (at least they are “smart”) the actual evidence on learning favors blocks and imaginal play over flash cards and push button computer learning toys. There’s just not much money in imaginal play, since you can do that without buying anything at all.
In a New York Times piece on play, Stuart Brown wrote, “Evidence from around the scientific compass — neuroscience, psychology, exercise physiology, sociology and developmental biology — has revealed the importance of play. Deprive a social mammal like a rat or monkey of its normal rough-and-tumble play and it enters adulthood emotionally fragile, unable to tell friend from foe, poor at handling stress and lacking the skills to mate properly.” (To read his piece, see http://tiny.cc/ZVZOB)
Based on his extensive work studying things like “play histories,” Brown goes on to say, “Play-deprived adults are often rigid, humorless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options. Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances.”
Given the evidence, it is well worth considering a play-based approach to learning, especially for young children. There is a great difference between a preschool where kids are just “left to play” and one where sophisticated teachers engage children in guided, content-oriented, play-driven and hands-on experiential learning. Becoming more sophisticated consumers of various educational approaches serves our kids and helps us not just fall victim to our fears that our kids will be left out and left behind. Finally, no matter how you choose to educate your child, there is plenty of evidence to support the value in playing with them.
So, let’s dedicate today to finding some playtime with our kids. Get outside and play tag, play animals, roll on the carpet or run through the leaves. Build with blocks, read a story (this stimulates our kids’ to use their imagination as he or she pictures the story). If your kid is older maybe play Pictionary or charades, or consider challenging them with: “If you were given money to make a TV show or a movie, (or an “Ap”) what would it be about?” Maybe these ideas fall flat for you, so be creative—and playful—and figure out a way to challenge and engage the body, mind and spirit of your child in some sort of seemingly meaningless play. It will be good for both of you… and, hopefully, good for all our collective children.