George Lucas Educational Foundation

Play Time: The Game of Learning

Fun must be a big part of the school day.
By Trish Konzak
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Credit: Sasha Wizansky

Children need to play. This observation might seem obvious, but lately, it is my rallying cry. It has to be. There is so much discussion among parents and educators about the relative benefits of academic versus developmentally appropriate preschools, and as testing rules the day, proponents of the academic model seem to be gaining ground.

But I am a parent, and I have been a preschool teacher for more than twenty years, and my experience and training tell me one thing loud and clear.

Children need to play.

They need to build with blocks, role-play with dolls and cooking tools, assemble tracks for trains, dabble in paint, jump up and down, ride tricycles, smush playdough, dig in sand, splash in water. They need to negotiate with ladders, slides, and each other. Take turns. Dress up. Cook.

And when they aren't doing those things, they should be singing songs -- old ones and new ones. They should be listening to stories and looking at books. They should be banging a tambourine or tapping a triangle. Feeding a fish. Watching a hamster.

Why? Because when children are playing with blocks, they are learning math and science. When they play with dolls, they are practicing nurturing. When they are dressing up, they are learning buttoning. When they play with playdough, they are exercising the small muscles of their fingers. When they paint, they are using small and large muscles and learning about color. When they cut, color, and draw, they are enhancing the small-motor development needed for writing. When they interact with each other, they are learning to share, take turns, and negotiate. Children learn while they play.

When children sing, they learn new vocabulary and the rhythm of words. They learn poetry. When they listen to stories a teacher reads, they learn the left-to-right progression they will use later for reading to themselves. When they listen to a story that is told, their imaginations provide the pictures. In both cases, they are learning to read.

"So, why not cut to the chase?" academic-preschool advocates wonder. "Won't children learn to read more quickly if they memorize the alphabet? Isn't counting the direct path to math? If a child sits at a table and copies letters and numbers, if they are drilled on words and simple equations, won't they know more, sooner, and without all the messing around?"

No. They aren't ready.

There are connections in children's brains that are usually not completed until between the fifth and sixth year of life, and they take another year or so to mature. These connections are essential for learning to read. When children haven't grown enough to be ready to read, they won't be able to do it easily. And if they can't do it easily, they will be stressed and frustrated in the process of trying to meet the unrealistic expectations of parents and teachers.

Most school districts require that children learn to read between five and six years of age. Most of them, especially boys, who may be developmentally behind girls of the same chronological age by up to eighteen months, have a hard time. By trying to teach children what they are not ready to learn, American schools are producing children who may become resistant to learning -- and for no good reason, it seems: Studies have shown that early readers have no real advantage in the long run, because their peers have usually caught up with them by age eight.

Children's physiology and brain development have not changed a great deal in thousands of years, but what we expect of those bodies and brains has changed a great deal. We want more from them; we want it sooner. They can learn what we want them to, when we want them to, if parents and teachers are consistent and very patient -- but why bother, when they are not ready?

Let's not "push down" the curriculum. Let's allow children to discover letters, numbers, colors, and language in a way that also teaches socialization, imagination, values, and joy.

If parents are concerned about reading and writing, they can read and sing to their children every day; they can let their children watch them write -- letters, bills, grocery lists. They can swap stories. Tell jokes.

And they can take them to a preschool where they will be allowed to play.

Credit: Sasha Wizansky
Trish Konzak has taught preschool for twenty-three years, nineteen of them for Heather Farm Preschool, in Walnut Creek, California.

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Linda Mackenzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ditto for kindergarten! It is shameful that a preschool teacher has to justify the value of play. For years that has been a problem for kindergarten teachers and now we, as a society, have succeeded (!?!) in pushing that duty downward as well.

Daniel McMahon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

All children need to "play," even those in high school and beyond. It is a sad fact that so many teachers confuse rigor or high expectations with a lack of play or a lack of fun. Watch a musician at play or a basketball player taking a free throw or a infielder preparing for a pitch--that's concentration in play. I design my whole class to allow us to play and have fun at the highest levels. Still, there are many teachers who believe that if people are having fun they are doing something wrong. Daniel McMahon

Robbie @Soledad,California's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my second year of teaching third grade and I was dismayed that most of my students didn't know how to play kickball, none knew how to cut a snowflake, and all enjoyed the rice table I set up in my room, because they'd never played in a sand table. Those things I thought were common childhood experiences, are not common.

Ruth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a learning consultant, I am constantly asked which curriculum is best for preschool and kindergarten. I am asked by parents what educational materials they should buy for their young children. I always advise them to worry less about curriculum and educational materials, and allow the children to play and explore.

Children should run, jump, breathe fresh air. Parents should spend time reading the children stories that are interesting and fun. Little ones should play with blocks and puzzles and toy cars and trucks. They should draw pictures, paint, listen to music, and visit the zoo.

Playing and fun activities inspire children to ask questions, and that is when real learning happens!

Ginger Jay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amen sister! Keep preaching that message- there are teachers and parents out there who will stand up and agree with you 100% I teach 2nd grade and I make sure my students read and sing and play and create something everyday. Childhood is supposed to be FUN.

Susan Hack, Dillsburg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

WOW! Great article....EVERYONE learns better when having fun....think about all the grown up seminars and meetings we have all attended....the ones you where you learned were the ones where you were engaged and having...(gasp) FUN.

It has always irked me when students join us at the Middle School or High School level and some educators/administrators/legislators think they should just sit and learn like automatons. I am thankful to have great administrative support and I am allowed to make learning in the middle school a true team experience with laughter and creativity.

Climbing Frames Guru's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Completely agree. Its fun to watch children genuinely playing and you can see their social confidence grow as their play confidence grows.
At nurseries these days sometimes staff are worried about letting the kids play too much, because cuts and scrapes are a part of the learning experience.
Let Them Play and run around.

Debbie's picture

Yes play is great! But, how does preschool teachers convey a play curriculum to parents? True cuts and scrapes are part of the learning experience again teachers are afaid to let go and let them discover the world around them through play. In some classrooms children are not able to explore open-ended materials and nature (indoors or outdoors)
As a teacher I love watching children play and explore materials around them.

Kate McFadden's picture

As a parent, I went out of my way to choose a preschool that is play-based. The directors and staff go out of their way at every turn to inform us how play is learning for preschool aged kids. I'm frequently amazed at the things my children say and know that they have learned through play at preschool. The staff has yearly parent conferences that they use to explain curriculum and how our individual children are learning. Is it a lot of work for them? Absolutely! But, I'm a convert. Now, as a high school teacher, I'm constantly looking for ways to integrate play into my classroom. We're never going to have recess for high school seniors, but if I can get them to "play" with words, play some games when they are done with a test early, or just bounce on a bouncy ball in the back of class for a minute, I figure that I'm taking a small step to remind them that play is part of life. It's how we as adults relieve stress and it's also how we continue to be models of lifelong learners.

Meredith G.'s picture
Meredith G.
ELA, music, and German language teacher from Cambridge, MA

Thank you for this article, Trish. I am a first-year teacher and have been horrified by stories of recess being cut at schools. Weren't we all kids, and don't we remember how important play was to us? I certainly still carry memories of games in the past when going about my day-to-day. I came across this article while reading a design blog recently, and I just love it. What I find so perfect about these playgrounds in Copenhagen is the designers' idea of creating a space that reflects the larger world around it, and which might therefore allow children a special entrance into it. I am lucky to be starting work at a school that still values this kind of activity (even the upper graders MUST go outside during recess), and I hope that school districts across the country will realize and remedy the mistake of cutting play from the school day.

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