I was saddened in a classroom this week to see a preschooler in tears, frustrated at her inability to form the letters of her first and last names in the way that the teacher was demanding.

Now, lest you think I am criticizing the teacher, know that the teacher is not only a friend, but also has years of experience and skills.

Importance of PlayThe problem is that clear demands are being placed on the four-year-old children in my community, so therefore also on their teachers and parents, to prepare children with fundamental skills and knowledge as a kindergarten entry prerequisite.

Time was when preschool and even kindergarten were preparation years, designed mainly to support children’s social and emotional adjustment to group learning, time spent mostly in creative play with blocks, dress-ups, art materials, and games.

Alas, in many schools today, those days are gone. As the emphasis on test scores and academic achievement has permeated our educational institutions, drill and skill have replaced play as the medium for learning.

An article in The Christian Science Monitor (Let the Children Play, Hanes, 1/23/12) highlights additional reasons that today’s children are suffering from play deficiency.

Plating in TiresHighly scheduled children, moving from one enrichment activity to another, have little time for spontaneous play. What playtime they do have is often spent using technological devices, pushing buttons or watching screens and flashing lights.

In other words, toys, not imagination, often drive children’s play, with the result that in the absence of toys, many of today’s children simply do not know how to play. Experts are agreed that the erosion of children’s play constitutes a problem about which something needs to be done.

As adults become concerned with the development of the whole child, they discover that the medium of play provides optimum conditions for social, emotional, and physical development, rather than focusing on narrowly cognitive skills.

Chalk DrawingIn this context, play is not just seen as childish fun, letting kids be kids, but rather a complex method of developing flexible thinking, language development, and self-control.
One hot topic related to play is its ability for children to develop “executive function”–such abilities as planning, multitasking, and reasoning–all more closely linked to academic success than IQ, standardized tests, or other assessments, according to much recent research.

So what can parents do encourage curiosity and imagination related to play?

  1. Become knowledgeable about the ongoing debate about the importance of play in your community schools. The article cited refers to specific efforts of parents working to bring back recess and decrease academic instruction in kindergarten and preschools.
  2. Consider carefully the amount of time your child has available for unstructured play, and the choices you make about toy purchases. Analyze the toys in your child’s room to see if it is the toys that are doing the work, or already have limiting assumptions built in, like toys based on media characters.
  3. Limit screen time. Despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans believe that the earlier children can use technology, the better off they will be, numerous studies have found no educational benefit, and potential harm, in early screen time.
  4. Go out and play. It is good for you and your children.

© Growing Child 2013 Please feel free to forward this article to a friend.