What are the benefits of play in early childhood education? What's the optimal balance to strike between play and other teaching methods (e.g., teaching to the test)?

A report on curriculum designed for young children (from birth to age 8) by the National Association for the Education of Young Children states that “assessment instruments often focus on a limited range of skills, causing teachers to narrow their curriculum and teaching practices (that is, to “teach to the test”), especially when the stakes are high. An unintended result is often the loss of dedicated time for instruction in the arts or other areas in which high-stakes tests are not given.” As it grows increasingly difficult to incorporate play and the arts into children’s lives, we need to determine which methods are most effective, and which are not.


Amanda Uhry, Owner/Founder Manhattan Private School Advisors

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In our very large private school admissions counseling firm, this is a question that often arises. Parents seem to have a bias against "playing all day" which is ridiculous is a preschool setting. Play teaches verbal and nonverbal communication, fine and gross motor skills, social skills and develops emotional IQ and even intellectual IQ. It teaches choice, decision making skills, and preference skills. It teaches how to lead any how to follow. It teaches sharing. Pre-school is called preschool for a reason: it teaches young children how to be part of a group and literally go to school as well as independence and accountability. Play is central to that, imaginative and otherwise.

Jonathan Plucker, Professor and Parent

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My family once accompanied me to a conference, and we took our then-3-year-old daughter to an outdoor aquarium before one of my meetings. She spent most of the morning talking to imaginary friends, and at one point she asked us for some space because she and her friends needed to have a "meeting." Even as a creativity researcher, the level of imaginary play worried me a bit, and I shared my concern with a colleague when I eventually made it to my meeting. It turned out that I was sitting right behind two of the world's leading scholars on early childhood play - Jerry Singer from Yale and Sandy Russ from Case Western - and as they overheard my concerns, they both spun around in their chairs and gave me an earful! I'll never forget Jerry's first comment, "It's a good thing, you should encourage more of it, and you'll be grateful she's doing it." It was, we did, and we are.

As someone who studies education policy and practices in other countries, I have always found it interesting that those countries that we tend to compare ourselves to (Finland, Japan, China) often have play-based early childhood education programs. Academic content tends to be woven into unstructured and structured play. These countries appear to have decided that many "21st century skills" (creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking; see P21. org) are best taught in young children through play.

I also recommend Sandy's latest book on the topic, Pretend Play in Childhood: Foundation of Adult Creativity (published by the American Psychological Association).

Carolyn Strom, Literacy Expert

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It should be noted that "play" does not prevent academic rigor. There is actually a lot of research done out there on high-quality literacy-based play. Play and skills do not have to exclude each other.

Sarah Rivera, Parents for Play!

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As a parent, the best teaching moments we have had are almost always centered on play. If we want to go hiking or run errands and the kids give us some blowback, we might include a few of their friends and all of a sudden, nobody minds walking a trail or going to the store. I listen to them playing to hear them constantly defining the rules of the game and explaining the circumstances of their imaginary game, all of which are key skills in terms of getting their ideas across and collaborating with others and even holding an audience. The best ideas - or the most fun idea - will usually win out. Play gives them confidence in who they are. They are the ones who get to make the rules and set the agenda. Funny, they always kill off the parents and are left to survive on their own.

Patrick Farenga, Author and speaker about self-directed learning, homeschooling, and unschooling.

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The value of play goes beyond educational attainment—it develops physical prowess, mental agility, and social skills, as noted by others. Nonetheless, many dismiss play as a trivial activity and consider it antithetical to serious education.

However, many researchers and teachers have noted the connection between children’s play and their intellectual development. For instance, author/teacher John Holt noted in his classic book, How Children Learn, how children do not use fantasy to escape from the real world, but rather use fantasy to explore the real world. All those games of cops and robbers, pretending to be ballerinas or gymnasts, and so on are helping a child try on those roles and play with those concepts.

More recently, Dr. Peter Gray writes about his research about play in his book Free to Learn: ‘…the enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality.... Play serves the serves the serious purpose of education, but the player is not deliberately educating himself or herself. The player is playing for fun; education is a by-product. If the player were playing for a serious purpose, it would no longer be play and much of the educative power would be lost.”

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