What About Play?

When "screen time" and drills replace open-ended play, kids lose out

By Sharna Olfman

Illustrator: Jean-Claude Lejeune

Photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

The ideas presented in this article are discussed at greater length in Dr. Olfman’s upcoming book Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our Kids (Praeger Press) in which some of the nation’s best-known child experts focus attention on the impact contemporary American culture is having on our children.—the editors

Creative, open-ended play is rapidly vanishing from our homes, outdoor spaces, and schools. Today instead, children consume 40 hours of media each week (mostly on screens), surpassing the time given to every activity but sleep. As media moguls compete for their market share, these entertainments are increasingly rapid-paced, violent, and sexualized, jolting children out of their age-appropriate activities and encroaching on not only the time available to play but on children’s very capacity for deeply imaginative play.

Economic and cultural constraints force parents to work longer days and weeks, and increasingly, parents rely on “electronic babysitters” to keep kids inside, or alternatively in structured after-school programs. And, with the intense escalation of standardized testing and curricula in the public school system, many preschools and most kindergartens are emphasizing structured academic work in lieu of play.

Upon rereading several classic children’s novels to my own children recently, I was struck by a common feature among them. The children who populate Little Women , The Secret Garden , All of a Kind FamilyThe Railway Children, and National Velvet, to name a few, play make-believe games well into mid-adolescence. Today, Barbies are passé by preschool, five-year-olds are playing with edgy, street-wise Bratz dolls while grooving to Britney, and pre-teens have long since moved on to electronic games, TV shows, movies, and music with ultra-violent and explicitly sexual content.

Is it really so problematic for children to adopt the outward trappings of adulthood in their dress, activities, and talk? Should we care about the loss of innocence and make-believe when so many dire matters—war, terrorism, environmental decay, poverty—weigh heavily on our collective consciousness? Perhaps—as those who have spearheaded the most recent set of educational reforms believe—it is wise to direct children’s attention rapidly away from play and toward the body of facts deemed necessary to be a competent citizen in our technologically advanced society. I believe the demise of play is cause for profound concern and part and parcel of the myriad of other stressors in children’s lives.

Thousands of studies spanning four decades have established incontrovertibly that creative play is a catalyst for social, emotional, moral, motoric, perceptual, intellectual, linguistic, and neurological development. Across socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural divides, play is a constant in childhood. It is a central feature in the lives of all young primates and most young mammals, underscoring its lengthy evolutionary history and adaptive value.

Academic Success Is Predicated on Play

According to psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial stages, the central challenge for young children is the development of initiative through fantasy play. Children the world over engage in vivid fantasy play between the ages of three and five. These activities are not mere diversions, but vital exercises that spark creative potential.

When we force children to foreclose on the stage of initiative, and then prematurely push them into the stage of industry, we may indeed succeed in getting some children to read, write, and complete math equations precociously. But we may also be creating a cohort of children who lack spontaneity, creativity, and a love of learning. Children who are not emotionally engaged with the material they are learning and by the teachers who instruct them, cannot grow intellectually. Teachers who facilitate healthy play in the early childhood classroom provide an ideal means of integrating social, emotional, and intellectual growth. But in the wake of the No Child Left Behind act, there is a growing disconnect between what education majors learn about optimal child development and what they are told to do in the classroom, which, increasingly, is to follow prescribed curricula and to sideline play in preparation for standardized testing.

School reforms did not just drop out of the sky. Over the past few decades, children in the United States have not been performing well in international tests comparing children’s math, reading, and science competency. Like others, I believe that our public school system should undergo reform. However, the creation of standards and accountability must be grounded in principles of child development and humane pedagogy. If the mandate of the public school system is to support children’s capacity to become thoughtful, caring, creative citizens capable of exercising independent judgment and free will, then treating age appropriate play-based curricula as expendable diversions in preschool and kindergarten is not the answer.

Perhaps, though, it is a quintessentially American answer, in a culture where “faster is better.” There is a well-known anecdote about Jean Piaget—the famous Swiss cognitive psychologist—that he did not like to speak to American audiences because after he had described the natural pattern of children’s development, Americans would invariably ask, “Yes, but how can we get them to do things faster?”

Piaget taught us that development unfolds over time in recognizable stages that nonetheless allow for considerable individual variation. In each of these stages, a child’s understanding of her world is qualitatively different, and in the preschool and kindergarten years, children think and learn optimally through play. We embrace stage theories that pertain to our children’s physical development: They must be able to sit before they can stand, stand before they can walk, and so on. At the same time, we understand that the child who enters puberty at 16 as opposed to 12 is nonetheless normal, and may tower over us five years hence. However, we have no such patience with respect to cognitive abilities. Woe to the American child who reads and writes at seven, rather than five! She will almost certainly be subject to at least one diagnostic label, even though seven is the normative age for beginning reading instruction in a majority of European countrie s.

Learning Through Play

If this seems to be an idealistic or romantic notion—that four-, five- and six-year-olds should be learning through play—let’s consider the following research comparing education among industrialized nations. It was, after all, international comparisons that catalyzed our most recent educational reforms. In a highly respected international survey conducted last year by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Finland came in first in literacy and placed in the top five in math and science among 31 industrialized nations. The rankings were based on reading, math and science tests given to a sample of 15-year-olds attending both public and private schools. U.S. students placed in the middle of the pack.

Finland’s recipe for success? Children start learning to read in grade one at seven years of age on the theory that play is the most effective learning tool in the early years and sets the stage for a lifelong love of learning . Preschool for six-year-olds in Finland is optional. At first, the seven-year-olds lag behind their peers in other countries in reading, but they catch up almost immediately and then excel. Also, from grades one through nine, after every 45-minute lesson, students are let loose outside for 15 minutes so they can burn off steam with physical or musical activities. Art, music, physical education, woodwork, and crafts—subjects increasingly deemed expendable in U.S. public schools—are required subjects throughout the grades. (How much Ritalin might be spared if all school children in the United States had the freedom to “burn off steam” every 45 minutes and participate in physical education, art, music, and crafts on a regular basis?) Although there is a standard national curriculum, teachers in Finland are held in very high regard, and have considerable authority to devise and revise curricula suitable to individual students.

While the United States continues to slash play from its preschool and kindergarten curricula, several European nations, including those in the United Kingdom, are reforming their school systems in ways that echo Finland’s choices: increasing the age at which children begin formal academic subjects, utilizing play-based curricula in the early years, and eliminating standardized testing in the early grades. The catalyst for these changes is a growing, research-based recognition of the success of developmentally appropriate curricula that do not arbitrarily divide children’s cognitive, social, and emotional needs.

In December 2000, the British House of Commons Education Select Committee issued a report stating that there was “no conclusive evidence that children gained from being taught the three Rs before the age of six.” Creative play and small class size were deemed essential in early childhood education. The report expressed the following concerns about early academics:

The current focus on targets for older children in reading and writing inevitably tends to limit the vision and confidence of early childhood educators. Such downward pressure risks undermining children’s motivation and their disposition to learn, thus lowering rather than raising levels of achievement in the long term. . . . Inappropriate formalized assessment of children at an early age currently results in too many children being labeled as failures, when the failure in fact, lies with the system.

It is unfathomable that the United States is moving its approach to education further and further away from that of the very countries whose academic achievements it strives to emulate, and in a manner that ignores decades of child development research.

Screen Nation

The inordinate amount of time children spend consuming media not only robs them of valuable opportunities that could be devoted to quiet contemplative play or social play, it also undermines their ability to play. In her book Failure to Connect, Jane Healy articulates how both the content and the process of watching and interacting with screens “short circuits” brain development, in ways that undermine the acquisition of impulse control, imagination, higher order thinking, and the ability to generate visual imagery. [Read an excerpt from this book in Rethinking Schools , Vol. 19, No. 2.] A vicious cycle is set in motion. The capacities needed to initiate play are undermined by screen culture, and the subsequent loss of playtime undermines these same capacities even further.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers are reporting that, for the first time, they are witnessing a generation of children, many of whom literally don’t know how to “make-believe,” who have to be taught to play. Grade school teachers are finding that some of their students don’t spontaneously visualize the characters they are reading about—and so reading becomes a colossal bore. Increasingly, the “play” that children are bringing to the preschool and kindergarten classroom is a repetitive mimicry of violent sequences that aired on their television or video game screen the night before, not tempered by the impulse control and judgment necessary to avoid inflicting injury or pain on other “players.” Small wonder that parents and educators sometimes lose sight of the value of play, if this is what is now construed as play.

Time Crunch

Healthy play is facilitated by adults, not so much as “play partners,” but rather as models of emotionally centered human beings, engaged in activities that become the raw materials for play. Whether mother or father is raking the lawn, cooking a meal, or doing a craft, these activities are woven into healthy play. But increasingly, parents aren’t home much with their children. In the wake of “welfare reform” our government has failed to provide women re-entering the work force with regulated, high quality, affordable child care. As the minimum wage continues to stagnate, the ranks of “working poor” parents continue to swell. Wage freezes are becoming ubiquitous among the working and middle classes, even as their workweeks lengthen. And so, parents are burning out. When we add the cult of individualism and the rampant consumerism in the United States, which prompts us to place our own needs first, the results are fairly predictable. Already-exhausted parents may elect to abandon their children to screens, structured activities, or the streets, while they “tune out” with the aid of their own screen entertainments.

When my daughter was five, after visiting a conservatory, she told me that “flower fairies,” had brushed against her legs. “Did the leaves of the plants touch your legs?” I offered. “No Mommy, they were flower fairies,” she reiterated with quiet resolve before drifting off to sleep. What would my daughter’s inner life be like if she had never been visited by “flower fairies”? Despite decades of empirical research on play, there is much that we still do not understand—that we may never fully understand—and yet must respect and honor. Perhaps in children’s imaginative play lie the seeds of the sense of wonder that we feel when we gaze at a sunset or a starry sky whose secrets will never fully be revealed to us, filling us with a deep reverence for the splendors and mysteries of the universe, and our place within it.

Sharna Olfman (olfman@earthlink.net) is a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of developmental psychology at Point Park University, where she is also the founding director of the Childhood and Society Symposium, a multidisciplinary forum on wide-ranging issues affecting children in the wake of rapid technological change and globalization. She’s the founding editor of Childhood in America (Praeger). She recently edited and contributed to All Work and No Play: How Educational Reforms Are Harming Our Preschoolers (2003) and Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our Kids (2005).