The Importance of Play for Early Childhood Development

by Meghan

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When your mom is a kindergarten teacher, you hear a lot about the massive changes sweeping public education, impacting even the youngest of students.  You start to pay a lot more attention to these changes when your own children near the age of entering kindergarten.  And while research has documented for decades the importance of play for early childhood development, the government and educational powers that be, continue to reduce the amount of time allotted for free play in early elementary classrooms.  Standardized testing demands,  pressure to teach “essential” literacy and math skills, drills, worksheets and homework have replaced unstructured, imaginative play time, invading kindergarten and even preschool curriculum.

Importance of Play

The Importance of Play

When we sought out a preschool experience for Big M, we did a lot of research and legwork to find the right fit for us.  After being home with just me for 3 years, it was important for us that she have a preschool experience to further develop her social intelligence more than anything, but we also wanted to make sure it was developmentally appropriate for her on all levels.  Everything I read, everything my mom had stressed to me for years, emphasized the importance of play in early childhood development.

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Watching her flourish over the last year has solidified all the research I read into reality.  Play, particularly unstructured free play and outdoor play, are critical to early childhood development, early learning, and truly important for kids of any age.

Natural Progression of Play in Early Childhood

Play allows children the freedom to explore their environment, mastering skills at their own pace, experimenting to figure things out on their own, laying the groundwork for lifelong problem solving, gross and fine motor skills.  There are several stages of play and how it features as your child progresses from baby to toddler to preschooler and beyond.

Solitary Play

From birth to about age 2, most children engage in solitary play.  Playing independently, with limited interaction with other children.

Spectator or Onlooker Play

From 2 to about 2 1/2 years, children may begin to stop and watch other children playing around them, but still will not voluntarily engage in play with them.

Parallel Play

During the next stage, from about 2 1/2 to 3 years of age, children will play side by side next to each other, but still not directly engage in playing together, even if sharing from the same pool of materials.

Associate Play

Part of the importance of preschool is the next two stages of play.  From about 3 to 4 years of age, children begin to engage in Associate Play.  They begin to interact with their peers, demonstrating some co-operation, forming early friendships and even developing preferences for playing with some children over others. Play is often in small groups, with no definite rules or designated roles.

Play at this stage is normally in groups of mixed gender.  That being said, Big M has already repeatedly emphasized that she “only likes playing with the girls.”  Her preschool teachers have pointed out this is largely due to the fact that the boys do not want to play dress-up and wear tutus and tiaras with her!

C0-Operative Play

The final stage of play is typically reached between 4 and 6 years of age.  Children will play with the express aim of playing together, supporting others in their play, working together for a common goal or project, with assigned roles for group members.  As children approach early elementary age, these groups often become more segregated by gender.

If you think about it, that last stage of play is pretty much how we effectively exist in the world for the rest of our childhood and adulthood.  Playing and working on teams, completing group projects, fulfilling roles, be it in the home, office or otherwise.

Stages of Play in Practice

Our preschool is a co-operative, play-based preschool.  This means, as a parent, I am significantly involved, including volunteering regularly as Parent of the Day over the course of the school year.  It has been fascinating to watch not only Big M, but all of her classmates, progress through these last three stages of play over the course of the school year.

At the start of the year, most of the children were still regularly engaged in Parallel Play.  Playing independently, still learning to share, their teachers helping to facilitate group play efforts and supervise disagreements.  Soon, they became more comfortable playing together – be it imaginative play in the kitchen or dress-up center, or playing more formal, organized games together.  And last week at the end of year picnic, I cracked up watching them play on the playground.  They collectively organized a game of chase, with one child tasked to be the ‘dragon’ chasing all the others, and another stepping up as the hero to save everyone else from the dragon.

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Those observations are the single biggest reason I enrolled Big M in preschool.  And I truly believe she and her fellow students progressed as much as they did, not only because of their age, but because they were in an environment that fostered it.  Their 2.5 hours of preschool twice a week allows for an hour of free play, with a variety of play stations set up around the room, ranging from imaginative play (kitchen, dress-up, puppets), crafts (paint easel, craft table with daily project), playdough, sand table, construction table, block center, reading loft, and a learning station.  The next hour features circle time, story time and a snack.  And the last 30 minutes is spent playing outside or in their rainy day room.  Their exposure to the same group of peers allows them to foster early relationship skills, without the constant supervision, oversight and involvement of parents.  How would hours of worksheets, drills and learning ABCs foster any of this?

Facts About the Importance of Play

Play is so important the American Academy of Pediatrics has published entire articles about it, and the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has formally recognized play as a right of every child.

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Play is important to healthy brain development.

Recent studies have demonstrated that play actually leads to better brain development.  Play forms connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, our executive command center for life, which ultimately help us regulate our emotions, create plans, and problem-solve.  However, for this to develop fully, children need unstructured, free-play: no rules, child-directed play.

Play develops necessary, life-long social skills.

When you have a play date, and you and the other parent are there to supervise, you often step-in to resolve conflicts.  In undirected play, children learn how to forge through those roadblocks themselves, establishing life-long social skills necessary to succeed in the world.  And the more practice they have, the better and earlier these social skills will develop.

Why is this important? One recent study shows how play ultimately leads to better grades. Researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

Play promotes active, healthy children.

Did you know that the prevalence of obesity in six to 11 year olds has more than tripled since the 1970s?  Over the same time period, children have lost 12 hours of free time per week, experienced a 25% decrease in play and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities.  Today, the average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.  The U.S. is now the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world, and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants are increasing dramatically.

Not only does play promote healthier children, increased activity allows children to focus more on schoolwork.  Children’s cognitive capacity, their ability to store information, is enhanced by significant changes in activity.  Studies show children who have more than 15 minutes of recess time per day are better behaved in class and are likely to learn more than peers who have had less than 15 minutes of recess.  This is confirmed by international research which demonstrates countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.

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Play produces happier children.

Play contributes significantly to the social and emotional development of children.  It improves language skills, and develops conflict resolution skills.  Imaginative play provides children with an outlet to express their emotions, feelings and develop their sense of self.  It can also be critical for stress relief, allowing kids to create fantasies to cope with difficult situations.  I can often learn far more from Big M about why she is sad through role playing or asking her to draw a picture about her feelings, than I can by asking her outright.

What is happening in U.S. schools?

So if all this research, our own American Academy of Pediatrics, and the rest of the world’s studies point to the significant benefits of play, why do our schools here in America seem to be moving in the complete opposite direction?

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With the U.S. viewing itself as ‘falling behind’ other countries in the education, it sought to upgrade our schools.  In doing so, they have accelerated academics, displacing play from the early elementary classroom.

“Kindergarten is now first grade, and first grade is now second grade,” says Anne Stoudt, a kindergarten teacher in suburban New Jersey for 19 years. “It used to be normal for first graders to still be learning to read. Now, the handful of kindergartners who aren’t reading by the end of the year are considered behind.”

While 30 years ago, only 5% of kindergarteners could read independently, today, kindergarteners are expected to read by the end of the year, with 90% passing end-of-year reading exams.  While these literacy skills are ultimately essential, so is the play-based learning they are displacing: motivation to learn, creativity, motor skills, social skills, self-esteem, problem-solving, and conflict resolutions may arguably be skills of even greater importance in the 21st century global economy.

The acceleration of these academic skills, and implementation of test-based assessments specifically for math and reading, has not necessarily narrowed the achievement gaps of students.  It has, however, utilized significant funding increases, increased the number of teachers with graduate degrees, and increased the time dedicated to these subjects.

There is no official measure in schools of the skill sets being displaced to determine the negative impacts there… other than the deteriorating health and happiness of our children.  However, external studies show negative results on all these fronts. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed in 2012 that US students rank 30th in Math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading. Worse still, almost 20% of US students did not demonstrate proficiency in problem solving.  Moreover, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking found that creativity among American school children has been on the decline for the last 25 years.

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What is happening in the rest of the world?

While the U.S. is reducing funding for creative arts programming, reducing recess, physical education and free play to make room for more reading and math instruction, what is the rest of the world doing?

In countries like Finland, which regularly leads the world in literacy, math and science assessments, children do not begin formal schooling until the age of 7, and then only go half-day.

TED recently featured this kindergarten just outside Tokyo as the ‘world’s best kindergarten.’  It’s architect designed the layout by “thinking like a kid!”  Built around the natural landscape, oval-in shape so kids can “run forever”, it encourages imaginative play, where everything from the chairs to the trees the school was built around can be used as a toy.

In the US, Canada and UK there are not-for-profit organizations whose exclusive mission is promoting play in schools and communities nationally and globally because of its developmental importance.  Among these, are KaBoom, Right to Play and Play England. All while our own countries and governments are removing play from our schools.

Support Play at Home

While public schools may be cutting back play from our children’s curriculum, parents can help at home.  Foster outdoor and unstructured play at home as much as possible.  Limit the use of screens in favor of free play whenever you can.  One of the best times of the day in my house is Quiet Time – Lil’ M naps, and Big M has free, independent play in her room.  I am endlessly amazed at the things she comes up with – today, she had dressed all her stuffed animals in costume and was putting on a musical when I came up to get her.

And while there are parents in NYC paying $400 an hour for play coaches to help their toddlers and preschoolers pass entrance observation exams to get them admitted to academically, rigorous preschools to set them on their life-long, trajectories to the right prep schools and Ivy League colleges, perhaps they should spend less money on scheduling every second of their children’s lives, and more time letting them play!  Before children must enter the federal and state-mandated curriculum of elementary schools, enroll them in play-based preschools.

PGPBMeghan Instagram Campaign

My passion for encouraging play with my own children, and sharing it with friends and family, was part of the impetus for creating Playground Parkbench.  The more I learn about the elimination of play from the lives of young children in America, the more passionate I become in encouraging it.  I recently started an Instagram campaign featuring the Ms at play along with my favorite quotes about child’s play to promote awareness for the importance of play.  Many are featured throughout this post.

Importance of Play IG CampaignWant to join in the cause?  You can follow me on Instagram @PGPBMeghan, and catch all our campaign posts or contribute your own with #kidsneedplay.

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If you enjoyed this post, be sure to tune in tomorrow when we review Encourage Play boxes… a monthly subscription box put together by a fellow play advocate, and Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Janine Halloran.

You can also learn more about the importance of play for children at Encourage Play’s month long blog hop: Play Matters!

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Janine Halloran June 24, 2015 - 3:07 pm

I LOVE this post. Play is so vital for children. They need time to do more of it, at school and at home. I’m totally on board for the Instagram challenge, I’m definitely going to join in!!

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Please do! We can’t wait to see your posts!

amber June 16, 2015 - 1:41 pm

This is a great article! As a school psychologist in an urban school system, I see how the academic pressure to teach the common core is having a negative impact on our school aged kids. Recess is far too short and free play is almost non existent. I also see the removal of recess as a consequence for behavior problems, and it’s the kids who NEED recess most who lose it. At my campus, teachers and administrators still use the loss of recess as a consequence, but I’ve gotten them to at least replace it with a little side line exercise rather than just having hyperactive kids sit idle during recess. As my kids approach pre kindergarten and kindergarten I worry about the academic demands they will face, and hope we can have enough free play at home for their imaginations to grow and social skills to develop.

PGPBMeghan June 16, 2015 - 2:06 pm

The point you make about loss of recess as punishment for the kids who likely need it the most is such a good one! All of this change in the schools, the emphasis of academics earlier and earlier is the single biggest reason I continue to think we will red-shirt both of our girls since their birthdays are both so late. Big M’s birthday is literally days before the enrollment cut-off, and Lil’ M is such a wild child, with a late summer birthday, I think it would be for the better for both of them!

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Amy June 8, 2015 - 10:44 pm

I am so glad you wrote this, Meghan! This struck so many cords with me….play is so important. I’m so thankful and I’m sure others are too that you outlined this crucial part of early childhood development!

PGPBMeghan June 8, 2015 - 10:47 pm

Thanks Amy! The closer Big M gets to going to kindergarten, the more scared I am – and actually, given her personality, I know she will do fine in any environment, but Lil’ M is a whole different story!


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