A couple weeks ago I met with my daughter’s teacher for our end-of-year conference, and during the conference I asked her, what we should do this summer to prepare my daughter for next year. I was quickly reminded of the importance of play.
A little background before anyone thinks we’re too overzealous about education in our house (although perhaps we are?). My daughter just finished P5 here in Barcelona, what would be her kindergarten year in the United States (where we’re from). We’ve lived here for almost one and a half years, and in my children’s school the main language spoken by the teachers is Catalan. The children at school generally speak both Catalan and Castellano (Spanish). While my daughter has made great strides in picking up Catalan this past year, there are certainly still words she doesn’t know in the language, there are verbs she doesn’t conjugate correctly, and she sometimes mixes Catalan and Spanish together in one sentence. My concern is that as the children dig deeper into reading—in Catalan—next year, my daughter may struggle. I wondered if there were anything we should do over the summer to help her grow her vocabulary, hone her syntax, or review vowel and letter sounds in Catalan.
Her teacher told me without hesitation, “No. She should play.”
She should play this summer. She should play with friends, play outside, play with toys, play board games. Play.
It’s not just through some idyllic lens of childhood and what childhood should look like that my daughter’s teacher said this; and she’s not the only one with this advice for parents.
Research on the Importance of Play
In fact, research has been saying for years that children need to play not just because it’s fun (and shouldn’t they have fun?), but also because they learn through play.
An article in Psychology Today in 2012 said, “Over the last seventy-five years a number of theorists and researchers have identified the values of such imaginative play as a vital component to the normal development of a child.
“Systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about two and one half through ages six or seven.”
Some of the many benefits of imaginative play include:
- Increased language skills
- Increased self-regulation
- Reduced aggression
- Heightened empathy
- Better problem-solving skills
How Play Develops Empathy
An article published on Fatherly and republished on Yahoo.com, explored the importance of play in child development. The article explained that creative play in which children role-play various scenarios allows children to understand that different people may view the same event from different perspectives.
“When kids experiment with thinking like someone else, it helps them realize every person sees the world a little differently,” the article stated. “This is a crucial step towards your child developing a sense of empathy.”
Through role-playing, children learn to understand how their own actions impact their own feelings as well as the feelings of others around them, according to research cited in the article.
How Imaginative Play Enhances Problem-solving
Imaginative play also often leads to creation. Sometimes children repurpose everyday objects, using them in a way completely different from their intended purpose. They are able to see various uses for the same object and view things from more than one angle.
Children also often become resourceful in their imaginative play when left uninhibited. They will fashion cars out of boxes, forts out of sheets, and doll houses out of paper. These creations give children a means of practicing math and spatial-reasoning skills, according to the article from Fatherly.
“Research in the journal Child Development shows that creative play teaches kids to come up with multiple ways to use everyday objects, fostering innovation and also strengthening their belief that if the first approach to a challenge doesn’t work, they can try again from another angle,” the article said.
Play-based versus Academic-based Early Education
Not only have the merits of play been revealed in countless studies over many years, but also several studies have demonstrated that when children are deprived with sufficient opportunities for free play, the long-term effects are negative.
Peter Gray, Ph.D. and author of the blog, Freedom to Learn, emphasizes the importance of play in early childhood on his blog. He even published a post in 2014 titled, “Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm.” Gray cited several studies that compared preschools that focused on play to preschools that focused on academics.
Studies generally found that in terms of academics, children who attended academically-focused preschools performed better on academic tests initially, but “these initial gains wash out within 1 to 3 years and, at least in some studies, are eventually reversed,” according to Gray.
He went on to say, “Perhaps more tragic than the lack of long-term academic advantage of early academic instruction is evidence that such instruction can produce long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.”
A study in the United States found that after an initial academic advantage, students who attended academically-focused preschools actually fell behind by the end of fourth grade. By then, the children from the play-based schools were performing better in school.
Another study from the 1960s followed students from high poverty homes in Michigan from preschool to the age of 23. The early years of observation matched those of other studies. At first, children from academically-focused schools had outperformed their peers, but the advantage soon faded. By 15, “there were no significant differences among the groups in academic achievement, but large, significant differences in social and emotional characteristics,” Gray said. “Acts of misconduct” were more prevalent among those from the academically-focused early education. By adulthood, “the differences were even more dramatic,” Gray said.
How Play Contributes to Success
Gray suggested that one reason for the long-term effects of academic versus play-based preschools could be that students “in the classrooms where they learned to plan their own activities, to play with others, and to negotiate differences may have developed lifelong patterns of personal responsibility and pro-social behavior that served them well throughout their childhood and early adulthood.”
By contrast, “Those in classrooms that emphasized academic performance may have developed lifelong patterns aimed at achievement, and getting ahead,” according to Gray.
Germany was on its way toward emphasizing academics in early education when it conducted a study in the 1970s. After finding children of academically-focused early education programs to be “less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally,” Germany reversed courses and again focused on play in its kindergartens, according to Gray.
Unfortunately, we still seem to underemphasize the importance of play and leave little room for it in our children’s day.
“Ironically, today’s world provides fewer and fewer opportunities for kids to flex their imagination muscle,” stated the article in Fatherly.
Gray mentioned preschool teachers’ frustration with the focus on academics in early learning, even noting he’s spoken with preschool and kindergarten teachers who are frustrated enough to consider resigning as a result of the increased pressure to focus on academics in place of play and personal exploration. I personally remember one of my daughter’s preschool teachers in the United States telling the parents at the start of the school year that there continue to be higher and higher expectations of what children “learn” in preschool in terms of academics. “Expectations have changed,” she said. “Children’s brains have not.”
Those Who Play More, Excel More
If all the research still has you a little leery of play as a means of education, I’ll leave you with this from Psychology Today:
“Root-Bernstein’s research with clearly creative individuals such as Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant awardees, indicated that early childhood games about make-believe worlds were more frequent in such individuals than in control participants in their fields (Root-Bernstein, 2012).”
As for me, I’ll be letting my children play this summer.