“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." - Plato
In our culture, we think about play the same way the way we think about desserts -
Desserts are a reward for eating healthy foods.
Play is a break after focusing on learning and work.
Desserts are something we enjoy, but are not good for you.
Play is fun, but it will not help you succeed in school or in life.
Desserts were at the top of the food pyramid, to be eaten infrequently.
Play is an occasional indulgence, not a necessary part of our daily routine.
Yet, research shows what we knew intuitively as a child –
PLAY is how we learn
PLAY is how we acquire the skills to creatively and successfully adapt to new situations
PLAY is essential for our emotional and physical health.
This is why Einstein called play “the highest form of research”, the U.N. said that play is “the right of every child”, and Peter Gray, a psychology researcher and scholar, described play as “an expression of freedom".
There was a time, not so long ago, when play was the focus of young children’s lives.
Twenty years ago, when I asked the four-year-olds in my class what they liked about school, their responses captured the joyful essence of childhood play: “I’m having fun! That’s what school is for.” “This is the best school in the whole world because we play everywhere we go!”.
Play is an inherent aspect of human nature - and it's not just for children.
To quote Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, “A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition – it’s a health risk to your body and mind.”
George Bernard Shaw recognized this when he said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
Yet, in the quest for higher test scores and a “younger is better” attitude toward everything from reading to competitive sports, play has been disappearing from young children’s lives at a rapid pace during the past 20 years.
And, when was the last time you heard an adult say, “I need to make more time for play in my schedule”?
Times have changed, and children know and feel it.
This year, when the children in my class made a video describing what they liked about their teachers, one response in particular tugged at my heart. The child said simply “I love that you let us play.”
Things don’t have to stay this way.
We need to turn our thinking upside down, and put play at the bottom of the educational pyramid for young children. We can return play to its rightful place as the way young children learn about themselves and the world around them. And we can keep it as an essential element of our daily life regardless of our age. Other countries have done it (Finland is just one of them), and we can too.
I, like so many early childhood educators, am a passionate advocate for play. I see its power in my preschool classroom. I feel its joy when I allow myself to experience it.
This past year I had the privilege of being part of a Defending the Early Years task force focused on play and its essential role in human development. It was a deeply rewarding experience that expanded my awareness of the extensive body of literature validating what children, parents, and early childhood educators have intuitively known abut the importance of play.
The research is clear. Play is both the way young children learn and the pathway for optimal brain development. And, play is equally as important for maintaining adults’ emotional health and their ability to creatively adapt to an ever-changing world.
I invite you to explore the resources below as a starting point to find answers to your questions, gather materials to share with parents or administrators, or provide a broader understanding of your real-life experiences.
If you would like to take a deeper dive into the world of play, the Library of Play, assembled by the National Institute for Play, has over 100 books, 500 research articles, and an ever-growing list of videos to investigate.
I encourage you to advocate for play in whatever way feels right for you. The children will thank you!
Almon, J. (2018). Improving Children’s Health through Play: Exploring Issues and Recommendations.
This research review is a collaboration between The Alliance for Childhood and the US Play Coalition. It discusses the benefits of child-initiated play in preventing and treating childhood obesity, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and weak bone development.
Almon, J. & Miller, E. (2011). The Crisis in Early Education: A Researched-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure.
This article documents the negative effects of an academic focus in preschool programs, including increased expulsions and decreased creativity and curiosity. It includes both national and international research findings.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.
This clinical report cites the increasing body of research showing that play enhances brain structure, supports executive functioning, and fosters the development of nurturing relationships with caregivers. It provides pediatric providers with information to advocate for play and “to write a prescription for play.”
Barber, Kate. (2019). Let the Children Play: Neuroscience Educator Nathan Wallis Explains Why Child-Led Free Play Is Fundamental to the Optimal Development of the Brain.
Neuroscience educator, Nathan Wallis, discusses the essential role of play in the development of the limbic system, or emotional brain, which dominates between the ages of
two and seven. He emphasizes the need for free play in developing the key dispositions of
creativity, perseverance, and resilience, discusses concerns adults have about play, and
explains the importance of failure as part of the play process.
Gray, P. (2008). The Value of Play 1: The Definition of Play Gives Insights. Psychology Today.
This brief article discusses five characteristics of play in both children and adults, referencing Vygotsky’s insights about play. It summarizes aspects of Gray’s book: Free to Learn.
Kohn, Alfie. (2011). Five Not-So-Obvious Propositions About Play.
Alifie Kohn discusses five propositions about play: 1) play is being redefined, 2) children of varied ages need opportunities to play together, 3) play is not just for children, 4) play has no goal other than itself, and 5) play is not the only alternative to work.
Murray, Jane. (2018). The Play’s the Thing. International Journal of Early Years Education, (26)4, 335-339.
This article is an introduction to an issue of International Journal of Early Years Education
focusing on the value of play in children’s development and learning. It contrasts the decline in play in the US and other parts of the world with the value placed on play by policymakers in countries such as Taiwan, Hungary, Singapore, India, and China. It cites both US and international research.
White, R. (2013). The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning.
This research summary was prepared on behalf of the Minnesota Children’s Museum. It provides research support for the educational philosophy that play is learning, discusses many forms and benefits of child-centered play, and analyzes the role of adults in guiding children through playful learning experiences.
Brown, S. & Vaughn, C. (2010). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery.
This book explores the essential nature of play in all mammals. Filled with research and stories, it explores the role of play in developing social skills, intelligence, creativity, adaptability, and problem solving. Stuart Brown is also the founder of the National Institute of Play.
Christakis, E. (2016). The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. Viking.
The author is a former preschool director and faculty member of the Yale Child Study Center. She explains what it is like to be a young child, and why many preschools and kindergartens underestimate children’s intelligence while taxing their growing brains, and encourages parents and educators to provide learning environments that allow children’s potentials to flourish.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books.
The author, a developmental psychologist, argues that we must entrust children to steer their own learning and development, and redesign schools so they promote children’s learning, happiness, and well-being.
Gronlund, G. & Redon, T. (2017). Saving Play: Addressing Standards through Play-based Learning in Preschool and Kindergarten. Redleaf Press.
This book contains research and resources that link child-directed play with learning standards and domains.
MacNamara, D.(2016.Rest, Play, Grow:Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One). Aona Books.
The author discusses the critical role of adults in creating conditions for young children to flourish, including the important role of play. Based on research and relational developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld.
Sahlberg, P. & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the Children Play - How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Our Children Thrive. Oxford University Press.
The authors reviewed over 700 research studies, interviewed 50 of the world’s leading educational authorities, and studied the positive results of play-based educational approaches currently being used around the world. They encourage educators, families, and politicians to advocate for the power of play in their own communities.
Singer, D., Golinkoff, R., & Hirsh-Peck, K. (2006). Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth. Oxford University Press.
The authors used a variety of methods and studied a range of populations to prove the powerful effects of play on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. It includes research-based policy recommendations for educators, counselors, and administrators.
Brown, Stuart. (2008, May). Play Is More Than Just Fun. [Video]. TED.
Brown, Stuart. (2008, May). Tales of Creativity and Play. [Video}. TED Serious Play Conference.
Gray, Peter. (2014, April). The Decline of Play. [Video]. TEDxNavesink Conferences.
Gray, Peter. (2018, June). Play-based Learning with Peter Gray. [Video]. New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
Association of Waldorf Schools of North America
Child and Nature Alliance of Canada
International Play Association (IPA)
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA)
Project Zero – The Pedagogy of Play (Harvard Graduate School of Education)