Is Play on the Endangered List?

Brandel France de Bravo, MPH

Building with blocks, playing house, a game of tag…Most of us have fond childhood memories that include these and similar kinds of play. But unstructured play-the activities, games, and “make-believe” that children themselves come up with and engage in, either alone or in groups-is fast becoming extinct. Parents are too busy and too worried to leave children unsupervised and unscheduled. They are scared about crime, even though crimes against children-assaults, abductions, abuse-have dropped dramatically in the last fifteen years.1 And they are anxious-about academic achievement and their children’s future in an increasingly uncertain world. As children in this country fall farther and farther behind academically, compared to children elsewhere in the world, and as U.S. high school students drop out at increasingly higher rates, many schools have become academic pressure cookers, sometimes even in kindergarten and pre-school!

How important is play?

According to a new report by the Alliance for Childhood, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, young children are being denied what is for them air and water: play. 2

Play is fun but it also teaches children many skills that they need.  Based on numerous studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that, “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self advocacy skills.” 3 Not only does play teach essential life skills, but it engages kids in mathematical and scientific concepts in a way that drills can’t. Play also helps children develop language skills-the most important precursor to reading. Most importantly, play teaches what can’t be learned at a desk, something that even parents can rarely teach: creativity. Many educational experts believe that creative thinking-the ability “to think outside the box”-is an essential skill for the 21st century. Albert Einstein said that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” because “knowledge is limited,” and nothing fires the imagination of a child like play. Perhaps that is why the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has declared play the right of every child.

What’s going on in kindergarten and pre-school classrooms?

  • Did you know that many kindergartens have hardly any toys in them? Of the 268 full-day kindergartens studied on behalf of the Alliance for Childhood, some had no toys at all-no sand, blocks, water play, or clothes for playing dress-up. These items have traditionally been a part of every kindergarten.
  • In most of the kindergartens studied, kids spent time every day either being “prepped” for test taking or actually taking standardized tests.  This is especially discouraging given that child development experts agree that this kind of testing is not only useless but unreliable in children younger than 8. Instead of blowing soap bubbles, 4- and 5-year olds are being asked to fill in bubbles on multiple choice tests.
  • Kindergartners in New York City and Los Angeles spend less than half an hour in free play each day, and many kindergartens have done away with free play completely. In fact, the word “play” isn’t even used in a lot of schools; it’s called “choice time.” Many teachers say that the kindergarten curriculum and performance standards are so demanding that they can’t afford to give kids “choice time.”
  • Did you know that many kindergarten teachers teach from a script and are forbidden to deviate from it? This kind of teaching is becoming increasingly common, even though there is no clear evidence that it improves reading skills, enjoyment of reading, or learning. If play is the most natural and exciting way for kids to learn, sitting and listening to a teacher read from a script has to be an especially boring way to learn.
  • The surge in obesity corresponds to the decline of free play-play that is not directed by a teacher or a computer. Are they related?  There is no research, but logically the lack of physical activity could be partly responsible.
  • Did you know that preschool kids, especially boys, are getting expelled from school at much higher rates than older children? A researcher from Yale surveyed preschools in 40 states and discovered that the expulsion rate for preschoolers was three times the national rate for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. And preschool boys are four times more likely to be expelled than girls. Are young kids really behaving that badly, or is it that they are being expelled for failing to do what they are not developmentally ready for and are being denied the activity most developmentally appropriate-play?

Based on nine new studies, Crisis in the Kindergarten focuses attention on the problems described above and the growing threat to play. The report includes a comprehensive list of recommendations for creating effective and healthy kindergartens.

As we move toward universal preschool education, restoring play becomes ever more urgent: our children’s mental and physical health depends on it.

References

1. “Trends in Child Victimization,” Crimes Against Children Research Center. http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/

2. Kenneth R. Ginsburg et al., “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Pediatrics, Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2007).  http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/119/1/182

3. Edward Miller and Joan Almon, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood, 2009. http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/sites/allianceforchildhood.org/files/file/kindergarten_report.pdf