Friday, September 7, 2012

Kids, school, and play: A look at what today’s youngest students are (and are not) doing in the classroom


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Now that kids across the country are putting away their swimsuits and flip-flops and heading back to school, a new cohort of kids will be stepping into the classroom for the first time. But what will they be doing once they walk into the classroom? As you think back to your preschool or kindergarten years, you may recall having fun with blocks or dolls, running around the yard playing tag, or pretending that you and your friends owned a restaurant. Take a look into many preschools and kindergartens across the country today, though, and you will discover that this type of free and unstructured play is quickly disappearing.

In a recent report released by the National Alliance for Childhood, researchers examined the presence of play in kindergartens in New York City and Los Angeles. Most of the teachers in these schools noted that on a typical day, their kindergarteners had, at most, 30 minutes for play. Twenty-five percent of the teachers at the schools in Los Angeles even reported that there was no time at all for free play in their classrooms. The research suggests that instead of playing, kids are spending a lot of time participating in structured activities and more “academic” tasks, like watching lessons at the blackboard, completing worksheets, and taking tests. Other researchers and experts in the field have observed similar patterns at both the preschool and elementary school level.  

What happened to hide and seek, playing dress-up, and building towers of blocks only to knock them down again? It’s no secret that many of today’s parents are fraught with fear about their toddlers’ future SAT scores and college admission chances. Psychologist David Elkind has noted that the shift away from kid-initiated play may be a well-intentioned result of that fear and an attempt to help kids get ahead. Play gets discarded while formal education begins at earlier and earlier ages.

But is the replacement of play with more formal teaching practices a good idea? In their book Einstein Never Used Flashcards, developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff suggest that it’s not. They express deep concern about preschoolers not playing and present evidence that play is crucial for development.

For example, numerous studies have shown that play helps advance cognitive skills. Playing with blocks can foster knowledge of “more” and “less,” and using board games can improve understanding of numbers and counting. Representing objects with other objects, like a banana for a telephone, might be preparing kids to think more abstractly. Experts suggest that play also fosters curiosity, a desire to learn, and the ability to "think outside the box." 

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Play is also important for the development of socio-emotional skills, like expressing opinions, recognizing emotions, and resolving conflict. In a study of preschool children, greater engagement in pretend play was associated with a better understanding of emotions. In a study of kids aged 13 to 44 months, kids who played with others in more complex forms (i.e., play during which kids chose roles for each other and maintained those roles) at a younger age were observed and rated as being more prosocial and sociable at later points of data collection. Letting kids figure out who’s “it” today might be teaching them more than you think.   

Finally, when play is replaced with more formal teaching practices, research suggests that kids not only lose the benefits that play can bring, but they may also experience more stress. In one study, trained observers visited classrooms and watched children individually for eight 4-minute units of time. In this study, researchers found that the preschoolers in play-based programs were rated as being less stressed and anxious than those in the programs focused on directly teaching basic skills. 

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So, as you wonder about all those little minds headed off to school for the first time, remember that kindergarten today might not be as fun, carefree, and fantasy-filled as it once was. If you are in a position to influence life in the classroom or if you interact with kids often, consider restoring the age-old practice of playing. It’s free, it’s easy, and it may be the best way to foster the development of the next generation.

Let us know what you think about learning by playing! Do you think schools should allow some time for play? What was your experience growing up or with your own kids?

References:

Elkind, D. (2006). The power of play. Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press.

Howes, C., & Matheson, C.C. (1992). Sequences in the development of competent play with peers: social and social pretend play. Developmental Psychology, 28 (5), 961-974 : doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.961.

Lindsey, E.W., & Colwell, M.J. (2003). Preschoolers’ emotional competence: Links to pretend and physical play. Child Study Journal, 33 (1), 39-52

Stipek, D.J., Feiler, R., Byler, P., Ryan, R., Milburn, S., & Salmon, J.M. (1998). Good beginnings: What difference does the program make in preparing young children for school? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19 (1), 41-66 DOI: 10.1016/S0193-3973(99)80027-6

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing what should be obvious, but isn't, given teacher mandates and flash-card parents prep-prep-prepping their little ones for preparatory school. To my mind, imagination should be more important than conventional g-score intelligence, but, being hard to test, gets less 'play.' A results-oriented society should be the domain of those whose brains have grown up (ca 25 years and older).

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    1. A lot of developmental experts involved in this debate agree with you that imagination should be more important. They add that creativity and thinking outside the box are the skills that are the most important now when information is readily available and computers can do lots of work for us! Thanks for reading.

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  2. Crafts are also good activities for children :)

    Making something yourself from raw matter (and thus, learning where those materials comes from), watching it slowly taking form, follow basic instructions, and in the end, the sheer pleasure of having made something all by yourself ! (even if it's not pretty and completely useless - who cares ? you actually MADE something)

    Crafts also teach children about project management (planning, gathering materials, starting the whole stuff...and do it until it's done !), and more importantly, will help them to release their creativity and express themselves (and to learn maths, also)

    (oh, and as a kid, I loved playing pretend and dressing up with my friends ! So many lovely memories ♥)

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    1. Yes – thanks for bringing up a great example! Crafts would definitely count in the “play” category here. And as you point out, perhaps they are helpful in the development of self-efficacy.

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  3. Excellent article! As a soon to be mom, it makes me sad to think my children won't get the same opportunities to develop their imaginations and the socio-emotional skills that comes with free play during school. A parent of a first grader was just complaining to me that her child's school supply list called for plain pink erasers and the same color notebook for each student....no colorful pencils, notebooks, or fun character erasers allowed! Where is the fun in that? I hope and pray that diaramas on the window sills, student work hanging from the ceiling, costume boxes stashed in closets for impromptu student productions, and alloted time for free play is still part of the kindergarten that my children will come to know! If not, I know what I will be doing with them at home!

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    1. Wow! Everyone needing the same color notebook is intense! I have not heard of that before. Sounds like your kids will be getting the play they need - even if it's not at school! Thanks for reading.

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  4. I believe that the developmental psychologists using the naturalistic observation research method was a great approach to this kind of thing. Anyway, I wonder if the teachers go about the learning process in a different way like making it fun, would that have any effect on the stress level of the children. For example, if the teacher implemented positive thoughts into the children as they are learning by coming up with an educational game or a fun way for the kids to interact with each other but learn at the same time. Like Dora the explorer. I think that they should take a look into the positive psychology perspective to this situation. But I would agree with the fact that kids do need time to play and interact freely with other kids. It gets their imagination and social skills on the move. They also develop more confidence in talking to other kids and helping others without being told to. I know I did in kindergarten. All we did was play with each other in the sand box and color pictures.

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    1. I agree that the role of the teacher is important. One interesting point is that researchers using observational methods have had a tough time figuring out what effects are due to the type of teaching practices used and what are due to the demeanor of the teacher. It is hard to find teachers who are “negative” socially and use play-based practices; on the flip side, it’s also difficult to find “positive” and upbeat teachers using the direct-instruction tactics. Thanks for reading!

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  6. Thanks for this blog! As a teacher and parent of 3 grown children, it is clear to me that this is accurate. It is amazing also that the debate continues since the likes of Piaget, David Elkind, Penelope Leach and many others have been advocating this for decades. I'm so glad that current research continues in this area and that the findings provide further proof for parents and educators!
    I think it's fine to include some basic introduction to reading and letters, etc. in pre-school and kindergarten, but their time should mostly be spent in play. It is obvious if you watch them that they are learning!
    Parents have been made to feel so much pressure about ensuring that their children are "on top" that they now over-schedule kids in structured activities and allow their children almost no free time.
    If we all think back to our fondest childhood memories, don't they often revolve around times when we were freely creating worlds of our own? And did we not learn a lot about ourselves and others from these experiences?

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    1. You are right - developmental researchers have been saying play is important for quite a long time! And yes, some “direct-instruction” learning seems fine. Research suggests that that kind of learning will be improved if kids get the chance to play, have recess, etc. throughout the day. Thanks for your comments!

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  7. Thanks for this.

    A bit tangential to your topic, but related also: public schools have historically had a more instrumental purpose - preparing workers to arrive on-time, follow orders quickly without questions. As a legacy, many schools continue to have "attendance" awards - which always struck me as an odd accomplishment in high school.

    So ... it is probably important to agree on a purpose/goal of schooling as part of this discussion of "free play".

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    1. Yes, it makes sense to make sure we are all talking about the same outcomes when we debate ways to help kids reach those outcomes. I think the point about play is that it is crucial for a number of different outcomes that most would agree are important and beneficial. By helping kids learn how to cooperate with others, maybe play is even helpful for teaching them to arrive at school on time! Thanks for reading.

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  8. There is empirical evidence that shows that children who aren’t given as much learning through play or game time, are more stressed and are made to learn only one way. There are many children who learn by many different ways. There has been correlation research that suggests that not learning through play can suppress their imagination and creativity. It teaches them problem solving, cognitive skills, and sportsmanship. I want my child to see more than just a banana, I want them to think outside the box and see what else it could be. I’m glad that they are still proving that it’s ok to be a kid and that you can learn through playing.

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    1. You bring up a good point – kids learn in different ways! That is one of the benefits of play. When you give kids the chance to choose their own activities, they are likely to pick things that "work” for them. With direct-instruction methods, everyone is taught the same way, and that may leave kids who don’t learn best by conventional methods behind. Thanks for reading!

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  9. I feel that kids should be as stress free as possible. They need to learn to be free minded and open up. Kids should be dreaming about being a superhero not learning about math and science. In todays life there is stress non-stop, we shouldn't be showing these kids stress this young. They need to be care free and enjoying the moments they have with out responsibilities. Save the boring learning for a later day in there life.

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    1. Yes, many teachers have said they are concerned that kids will equate learning with stress and being bored. This does not seem like a good pattern to establish for life! Hopefully letting them play will make it so they see learning as something fun and enjoyable. Thanks for the comment.

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  10. As a parent to a kindergartner it seems to me that today the United States is more focused on how to close the academic gap between us and the rest of world.By forcesing are children to focus on the academic aspects of life it is hindering there people skills and creative sides.Let the children be children and leave the stress to the adults.

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    1. Agreed! As I mentioned in a comment above, in order to close the academic gap and succeed in this competitive, globalized world, experts have said we really need to focus on communication skills and unique ways of thinking. Simply memorizing facts is not going to be enough. Thanks for reading!

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  11. Children's imagination has no boundary which is why they are such a great learner. Playing is one of the best way to have their imagination runs wild and there's so many things they can learn and so many probabilities they can turn to. Great article by the way

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    1. Yes, kids have a lot to learn – we should try not to constrain them. Thanks for the comment!

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  12. While it’s good that schools teach children to prioritize studies at a young age, it’s also very important to let them know that playing is also good for them. All work and no play makes for a dull little kid, after all. It’s good to allot time to let them play with each other and with educational toys in school. Playtime encourages social skills, multiple intelligences, and learning in different ways. Perhaps day schools and primary schools should reconsider adding at least half an hour of supervised playtime to the curriculum.

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    1. A half hour – at the very least – seems like a wise idea for all the reasons you mentioned above! Thanks for reading!

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  13. i love your site..mostly kids love to play rather than to study its their way of living because their are still young..

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  15. Thanks for this! As a "serious" scholar in rhetorics, I find myself turning more and more to play in my own research and writing. Cutting edge research in higher education is moving (slowly) toward a value of play, and there is theoretical and methodological support across the disciplines for teaching through play. To see unstructured play fall by the wayside in any classroom is tragic to me, especially as I explore my 18-month-old daughter's world alongside her, and I imagine what her looming school experience holds in store. I hope it's not the stress and frustration that seems to be affecting our kids at younger and younger ages.

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