The importance of play (published FuturemindS, September 2006)

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Yet the balance between the two is difficult to find, as academics assess the value of both activities. In some schools, play is getting squeezed out of the classroom as academic achievement becomes a chief concern for even our youngest learners. Yet in other cases teachers are campaigning for play-based learning to continue throughout schooling. So just how important is playtime?

The New York Times recently wrote about Achievement First East New York Charter School in Brooklyn. Their classroom has no dress up corner or play kitchen. The children do not have time for 'show and tell', naps or recess. Here kindergarteners commence formal education early with practise drills for phonics, arithmetic and punctuation.

"At the beginning of the year, they're dropping like flies, falling asleep by 12 o'clock," said their teacher, Keisha Rattray. "We say 'Wake up, you are in big school now.'"

While Achievement First is an extreme example, it's leading a growing trend of schools worldwide where there is less time for play.

The pressure to focus on academics earlier is especially felt in poorer neighbourhoods, where schools are doing their best to meet standards such as America's No Child Left Behind Act.

The trend is also common in Asian countries, where parents having fewer offspring are becoming more attentive to their educational needs.

"One of the things I look for when choosing a kindergarten is the educational and professional qualifications of the teachers there," explained Mrs Chen of Taiwan.

However, Taiwanese kindergarten teacher Lin Ching-ching worries that kindergartens are focusing too much on this demand for the best facilities, at the expense of the children.

"With kindergarten education being so commercialised, parents are not choosing schools according to core development values such as learning through play, social interaction with peers, and motor and physical development," she said. "This has led to a trend where children are more passive, less resilient, and less independent."

She said many children also did not feel secure in their learning environment, as parents tended to move their children from school to school in search of better facilities.

"One parent I know enrolled her child in three different schools before the age of seven," she said.

Like many teachers, she is critical of schools focusing on academics at the expense of play.

"Many kindergartens nowadays don't provide enough room for physical activity. Some have only a small patio as a playground, or a plastic slide. To compensate for these deficits, some kindergartens have motor skills classes. Whoever heard of motor skills classes in the old days? Running around in the playground was enough. What's more, you need to pay extra for these classes in some cases!"

While it may seem advantageous to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as early as possible, most early childhood experts agree that play is vital for social and academic development.

Patricia Wilson, a kindergarten teacher at Public School 28 in the Bronx is sad to see the changes in her classroom as playtime is devalued.

"The play kitchen, I had to remove it to make space for the math station and the reading station. The dress up area, I miss it. If a child is timid, playing in the dress up area helps him make friends."

Milagros Perez, another teacher at the school has also seen the difference in her young students.

"They do need to socialise and learn to share. They need that interaction with their peers. That has been lost. There is a lot of fighting now."

Dominic Gullo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College, believes constructive play does more than develop social skills. It also lays an important foundation for reading and mathematics.

For example, children who pretend to operate a post office or restaurant learn to take turns, communicate clearly with their peers and make up stories. These stories are a springboard for creative writing. Children playing with blocks learn mathematical concepts, such as that two small blocks are the same length as a long one.

Roberta Golinkoff, an academic at the University of Deleware's School of Education agrees.

"Play is crucially important to children's intellectual, social and emotional development," she said. "In addition, children's physical health is linked to having opportunities for play."

She is critical of many schools eliminating recess, saying the break is vital for knowledge retention.

"Research shows that play breaks maximise attention to school tasks that involve thinking," she explained. "Recess clears the mind. It enables consolidation in memory of what children have just learned and clears the deck so that children can concentrate on academic tasks again."

Mrs Rattray agreed that ideally all children would have time to play, but added that we do not live in an ideal world. She believes the order and structure of Achievement First is an improvement over the "chaos" of many urban schools. "Achievement First gives them a solid foundation," she said.

However, while taking pride in her students' achievements, Mrs Rattray admitted she has reservations about her own school's methods.

"If it were my own child, I would want more time for play," she said.

However, some schools are finding that time, with the use of play-based learning throughout early schooling.

Children at schools like Princes Hill Primary in Victoria continue to learn, but do so in fun ways. The school's teachers worked with an early-education consultant to develop their new curriculum. Now rather than simply write what they might find in a shop on the board, the students will write a shopping list, build a shop, role-play shopkeepers and customers, and write a story about this. They also spend more than 80% of their learning time outdoors during summer, and half of their time outside during winter.

The results have been encouraging. Literacy improved for all students, particularly the boys who performed twice as well under the new program. The students also improved socially.

"There was a significant difference in social skills for all children, but particularly for boys. If children are engaged they are more interested in what they are doing and it is more meaningful to them," explained the school's principal, Gillian Collins.

"If they are working together and building something, they are engaging with each other and learning how to negotiate. If one boy wants to use a piece of wood that another child has, he has to go and negotiate and explain why he needs it, and that sort of skill flows into other areas."

Delegates at the England's National Union of Teacher's conference have called for more playtime at school. They blamed the "demands of the curriculum" for a reduction of imaginative play at school.

Jane Nellist of Coventry deemed the current system "state sponsored child abuse," commenting that "Children have a right to play."

Early years teacher Marilyn Evans agreed, saying that the state provided her school with six electronic whiteboards, but could not offer sand and water to play with.

The delegates have developed a formal resolution, commenting that play "has a crucial role for all, children and adults alike."

Following this, Barry Sheerman, a leading British politician has controversially recommended suspending formal learning until students are seven years old. This follows the example set by a number of high-performing European countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

"Well-led pre-school education is really very important - why should formal school start before seven? Why not let early education last until seven?" he asked.

However, a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills feels the current British curriculum works because it strikes the right balance between work and play.

"We want all children to make progress in literacy and numeracy at an early age, as these skills are critical to their ability to get the most out of learning later on," he explained.

"The first years of schooling focus on play-based activities in addition to formal learning. The curriculum is age appropriate and we actively support teachers to adapt their teaching to the needs of children."

This balance between work and play seems critical for students' success. Even the youngest child has a great capacity for academic learning. However, to learn without play may see students miss out on vital skills that cannot be measured by test scores.


'Kindergartens too commercialised now, teachers say', Taipei Times, 23 January 2006
'Teachers want play-based learning', BBC News, 17 April 2006
'Playing new learning games', The Age, 24 July 2006
'In kindergarten playtime, a new meaning for play', The New York Times, 26 July 2006
'Parental school choice "naive"', BBC News, 2 August 2006
'Learning and play', Delaware Online, 13 August 2006

(c) 2006 Lauren Katulka