Education Opinion

What Happened to Play?

By Sheila G. Flaxman — February 16, 2000 6 min read

School districts and their patrons nationwide are racing to raise standardized-test scores. Any program, new or old, is eagerly adopted if it can be billed as a panacea for falling scores. Trends come and go—and come again. As the old song says, “Everything old is new again.”

Except, that is, in the way we treat young children as they try to learn.

The practitioners of “Educanto” (that rare language only educators speak and the lay public does not understand) have decreed that more is better. As a result, young children in many school districts spend most of their day involved in non-age-appropriate activities. They devote hours to abstract activities that seldom have any child-centered follow-up practice. Yet, as we have known for a very long time, young children learn from the concrete to the abstract, not the reverse.

Today’s educational approaches to young children reflect, of course, a widely held interest in schools’ teaching “the basics.” States want to give all children a head start in learning, and parents are committed to providing every advantage their children may need to succeed in a world that is ever more competitive. These natural impulses support a belief that young children can and should learn more at an earlier age.

Play involves a free choice that is a nonliteral, self-motivated, enjoyable process.

But is it as simple as that? As an educator with 35 years of experience working with young children, I would like to raise an alarm: We have lost sight of play as a critically important factor in the normal development of children from birth through childhood.

A lot of what passes these days for play—educational games; toys that teach academic concepts; puzzles for matching words, numbers, and colors—is not really play at all. Play involves a free choice that is a nonliteral, self-motivated, enjoyable process.

“Nonliteral” is, by definition, not realistic. This means that the external aspects of time, use of materials, environment, rules of the activity, and roles of the participants are all made up by the children playing. They are all based on the child’s sense of reality. Children engage in play because they enjoy it—it’s self-directed. Once they get bored, they will no longer play, or will change their play. They do not play for rewards—they play because they like it. They enjoy the activity of play and not the product.

If play is free-choice, self-directed, and devoid of adult reality, how can it be an important activity for children learning to be adults? We teachers of young children are often forced to explain and justify play’s importance to administrators and parents anxious about whether or not their children are learning as much and as well as possible. These otherwise well-meaning adults believe that children’s play is a waste of valuable time that might better be spent on more “educational” activities. They may even feel that play allows children to hide in fantasy instead of facing the realities of the adult world. But developmental psychologists since Jean Piaget have maintained that infants and young children learn new concepts through a dual process: first discovery, then practice.

Seen through this lens, play is the best possible preparation for adulthood, especially in our highly technological, competitive society. Children have never before been exposed to so much, so early. Play not only allows them practice with all the new concepts—social, emotional, moral, and intellectual—they are learning so rapidly as they develop, but also helps them make sense of and internalize all the stimuli to which they are exposed.

As we attempt to make reading, for example, an activity in which even the youngest children can participate, we need to realize that our world is filled with abstract symbols. Words are abstractions for things and ideas. Letters are abstractions for sounds, numbers for quantity. Yet, young children live in a concrete world. Playing is the process they use to slowly learn to move from a reliance on the concrete object in all their thinking to manipulating abstract concepts in their minds.

The more varied and flexible the play materials, the more extensive use the child will make of them.

Many play activities, especially ones that require children to cooperate, teach them how to work together, how to take turns, and how to reciprocate. Such social skills, in turn, are closely related to moral development. We adults bemoan the fact that children have too few appropriate role models, yet we take little account of the fact that moral development first involves the child’s ability to put himself in the other child’s shoes. In play, children learn that by following rules that benefit the group, they gain the ability to continue to play. The world of play gives the child a rich laboratory where the complex process of developing moral guidelines can be reduced to simple, everyday acts.

Moreover, the playing child is an active learner. He selects toys and play materials to create interesting activities. If boredom sets in, new materials are sought or old ones used in a different way. Because children don’t like to be bored and because play is self-motivated, a child will continually select and manipulate materials in the environment to keep up interest—in other words, to stay stimulated. The child learns how to control his environment for his own use. The more varied and flexible the play materials, the more extensive use the child will make of them. In a world of passive television viewing, this active learning through play is essential.

Never in our history have children been under as much stress as they are today. Play provides them with emotional release from this stress. It allows children to experiment with ideas, language, rules, and moral concepts. We must give children the freedom to try out things—language, higher-order thinking skills, or simply a new way of sharing a toy. If these don’t work, then no one loses; if they do, the child can try them out in the real world. Play provides the flexibility for children to experiment, grow, and discover, without the pressure of failure or adult evaluation.

More and more, research is documenting for us what we already know: the poor physical conditioning and abilities of young children today. Yet schools continue to cut physical education programs and, in some districts, even contemplate eliminating recess periods. This is not wise. Physical play activities develop healthy bodies while teaching children to enjoy exercise. Encouraging such activities, which children usually engage in eagerly and voluntarily, is important. Longer recess times, not shorter ones (or none at all), would be in the best interest of children.

A child’s reality is very different from the reality we adults understand.

Today’s young children are controlled by the expectations, schedules, whims, and rules of adults. Play is the only time they can take control of their world. No one would advocate limitless playtime, but a return to common-sense judgments about what is developmentally appropriate for children at what age is long overdue. This is a matter of utmost importance for helping children gain a sense of control and a sense of who they are. The almost daily media reports of out-of-control young people should be our warning that something is amiss in early childhood.

A child’s reality is very different from the reality we adults understand. Because young children are continually bombarded by new concepts—in the natural world, in language, in moral codes and social expectations, and in life in general—they need a haven of child-centered reality.

If we understand this, and know the critical importance of play in the normal development of children, we will get back to the basics of preparing children to become adults. We will allow them to play. And then the words of the ancient Chinese proverb—"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand"—will take on a whole new meaning in our schools.

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as What Happened to Play?