George Lucas Educational Foundation

Studies Emphasize the Importance of Childhood Play

Many would agree that play is important for the health and development of children, but just how critical is it? Blogger Suzie Boss explores several research studies that delve into the question.
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
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This resource article accompanies the feature "Kids Design Their Own Playground."

Childhood play is coming under increasingly serious study. Recent reports underscore the importance of kids' play to address childhood obesity, build social skills and problem-solving abilities, and unleash creativity. Here are summaries of some of this research:

"Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School," released by the Alliance for Childhood in March 2009, reports on what the document calls "the crisis of play's disappearance" from early-childhood education. Under pressure to achieve academic gains, many schools have replaced the freewheeling play of kindergarten with scripted lessons that focus on literacy and math skills. The alliance calls for "a national movement for play in schools and communities." (Download a PDF of the report at the Alliance for Childhood's site.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in its 2006 report, warns of what the comment refers to as a "hurried and pressured" lifestyle cutting into children's time for free play. The academy urges time and opportunities for what it describes as "active child-centered play" to foster children's physical, social, and emotional well-being. (The report is available at the Academy's Web site.)

Americans face an equity issue when it comes to playgrounds and parks. "The Benefits of Parks," a white paper from the Trust for Public Land, describes many urban neighborhoods as "park poor," especially in low-income communities with large numbers of recent immigrants. Children without access to places to play suffer higher levels of obesity, diabetes, asthma, anxiety, and depression. (Register to download a PDF of the white paper from the trust's Web site.)

Scientific American surveys recent research about play in the article "The Serious Need for Play," in which author Melinda Wenner explains why kids need time for rambunctious "free play," and not just recreational activities that adults organize, to develop creativity and social skills.

Boston College psychologist Peter Gray explains in Science Daily why self-organized play allows children to learn to get along with diverse others, to compromise, and to anticipate and meet others' needs. According to Gray's studies, healthy societies cannot afford to "forget how to play."

Suzie Boss is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon, who blogs about the power of teaching and project-based learning at

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Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

I could not agree more, Suzie. Personal observations, as any teacher will tell you, as well as the research all point to more activity and free play time. In my school, kids are told to be quiet, no talking at lunch, no talking in the hall, stay in your seat and raise your hand. Some teachers even have kids walk in the hall with their mouths filled with air - "their bubble" - to keep them quiet.

One of my favorite examples of making this very important point is Stuart Brown's TED Talk on playing:

Susan MacKay's picture
Susan MacKay
Portland Children's Museum, Portland, Oregon

It's wonderful to find this focus on play at edutopia-- At the Portland Children's Museum, and it's public K-5 charter, Opal School, we're focused on researching the possibilities for tapping into the power of play to strengthen and support children's natural capacities as thinkers, planners, and doers. Our publication, tentatively titled: What About Play? will be published late this spring. You can check back at our website to find it:

From the text:
"To be responsive to a child's innate sense of wonder is to help choreograph a life-long dance with the world that we experience and create as we live out our lives. Environments steeped in play and playful inquiry support children to grow into adults who have an understanding of their own capacities-- who's minds have richly developed pathways layered with possibilities for new and flexible connections. These are minds that can solve complex problems, invent novel solutions, imagine another's perspective, and communicate with confidence and competence. These are the kinds of minds that create peaceful, sustainable, and happy communities."

What else should school be for?

Jill Vialet's picture
Jill Vialet
Founder and CEO of Playworks

The recent Gallup poll of principals on their attitudes towards recess also adds an interesting perspective to the conversation. In the poll, principals simultaneously confirmed what the research has been showing - they felt recess contributed to learning and achievement - but they also acknowledged that recess was the time of day when things were most likely to break down. It is absolutely clear that kids need free play for all sorts of great reasons, but I think that if we really want to see a systematic change of how play is integrated in schools, we need to help principals address this tension. Playworks tries to do this by providing a well- trained staff person who helps kids develop the skills they need to structure and take responsibility for the play that happens outside on the school yard.

susan cimino's picture

thanks! found this to be a great link (Stuart Brown). Sad that we have to fight to keep play as the centerpiece of our day!

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