In Praise of Child's Play for All of Us

January 23, 2012

Have young children outgrown the need to play? (Do we ever outgrow it?)

I have a number of artists in my extended family, along with 11 grandchildren. Play is something we do together without even thinking about it. Many of us were together this past Thanksgiving at my farm in rural Virginia. We played with the plants from the woods and the gardens to create interesting table decorations. We took walks in the field to find different kinds of weeds. We held a contest for which child-adult team could build the most interesting mobile from sticks. We played with ideas and shared family stories.

Play is not passive; watching TV ... isn’t play

Less Time for Child's Play?

There are some—parents, educators, child care providers, policymakers—who underestimate the value of play. In their scramble to get young children “ready for school” (and to please ambitious parents), child care centers and preschools are increasingly devoting less time to active play and more time to highly structured teaching. 

In elementary school, recess is threatened or abandoned. Much of the criticism of “teaching to the test” sparked by No Child Left Behind’s high-stakes testing requirements over the last decade is based on the idea that teaching has become so narrowly focused that kids have been robbed of the opportunity to learn through doing and experiment with problem-solving—all key aspects of playing.

Is our world really so complicated and demanding that there is no time for imagination, spontaneity or free play, alone and with others? Which is more valuable: teaching a 3-year-old her ABCs, or letting her build castles in the sand?

Let me be clear. Play is not passive—watching TV or itunes may be entertaining but it isn’t play. Play is not chaotic or random. I am talking about “play with a purpose.”

Children need play to learn; new research from the American Academy of Pediatrics adds to the growing bank of evidence supporting this.

A reading teacher once told me that you can tell if a child is ready to learn to read by their language. If they don’t use any prepositions (on, under, over, around) they are not ready. How do you get them there? Teach them by helping them play with a chair, going under, over, around or through.

Children learn by doing first, by moving from concrete action to abstract thinking. Does it really make sense to rob them of opportunities to learn to play?

Adults Need Play Too

Isn't it the wealth of experiences, imagination and drive to follow through that lie at the heart of entrepreneurship and job creation?

It's not just kids who need time to play. Our economy needs the teamwork and skills that come from play,  including the innovations that spark the next round of economic growth and prosperity, not to mention jobs. Google is famous for allowing its employees to spend 20 percent of their worktime on "Days of Autonomy," or free, unstructured time to play, create and produce. This has resulted in the development of Gmail and other innovations. (Check out this fun video about what motivates people to perform. Hint: play matters!)

Our sense of community needs play, like working together on a project – the adult equivalent of play dates.

There's a common idea that we must protect wealth because the wealthy are the job creators. Let's take a closer look. Isn’t it the wealth of experiences, imagination and drive to follow through on something that lie at the heart of entrepreneurship and job creation? How do we encourage children to develop these traits, if not through some form of play?

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for learning, but not at the expense of play. And not at the expense of squeezing all the fun out of learning either. Yesterday I taught my cooking class at the local Boys and Girls Club. We made pancakes, but what we really focused on was reading a recipe and using ¼ and ¾ cup measurements to help them understand fractions. We had fun, but we also learned the way children always learn best, by combining hands-on “doing” with thinking it through.

Think about it, and let me know what you think – and how play improves your learning.

Jan Richter is editor of the SparkAction Update and former manager of outreach for Connect for Kids, SparkAction's predecessor site. You can reach her at jan[@]

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Jan Richter