Sacrificing Play at the Altar of Academic Success

I read a paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” It highlighted the proven benefits of play such as:

  • It assists a child’s brain development.
  • It reduces obesity and related diseases.
  • It can help kids reduce stress and recover from trauma.
  • It helps families to bond.
  • It also helps students academically as well. 

These benefits are well documented, but even though we understand that play is essential for children, it has been sacrificed.

The authors of the paper note that the current education reforms have diminished the role of play in school, but have not seen a corresponding gain in student achievement:

An increasing societal focus on academic readiness (promulgated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) has led to a focus on structured activities that are designed to promote academic results as early as preschool, with a corresponding decrease in playful learning. Social skills, which are part of playful learning, enable children to listen to directions, pay attention, solve disputes with words, and focus on tasks without constant supervision. By contrast, a recent trial of an early mathematics intervention in preschool showed almost no gains in math achievement in later elementary school.

They highlight the modern challenges to play which are discouraging:

For many families, there are risks in the current focus only on achievement, after-school enrichment programs, increased homework, concerns about test performance, and college acceptance. The stressful effects of this approach often result in the later development of anxiety and depression and a lack of creativity. Parental guilt has led to competition over who can schedule more “enrichment opportunities” for their children. As a result, there is little time left in the day for children’s free play, for parental reading to children, or for family meal times. Many schools have cut recess, physical education, art, and music to focus on preparing children for tests. Unsafe local neighborhoods and playgrounds have led to nature deficit disorder for many children. A national survey of 8950 preschool children and parents found that only 51% of children went outside to walk or play once per day with either parent. In part, this may reflect the local environment: 94% of parents have expressed safety concerns about outdoor play, and access may be limited. Only 20% of homes are located within a half-mile of a park. Cultural changes have also jeopardized the opportunities children have to play. From 1981 to 1997, children’s playtime decreased by 25%. Children 3 to 11 years of age have lost 12 hours per week of free time. Because of increased academic pressure, 30% of US kindergarten children no longer have recess.

There are other causes such as increased screen time, families busyness that crowds out play, a lack of safer spaces for kids to play, etc. 

I don’t agree with the authors’ embrace social-emotional learning, but in terms of early childhood education I do agree with the following conclusion:

The optimal educational model for learning is for the teacher to engage the student in activities that promote skills within that child’s zone of proximal development, which is best accomplished through dialogue and guidance, not via drills and passive rote learning. There is a current debate, particularly about preschool curricula, between an emphasis on content and attempts to build skills by introducing seat work earlier versus seeking to encourage active engagement in learning through play. With our understanding of early brain development, we suggest that learning is better fueled by facilitating the child’s intrinsic motivation through play rather than extrinsic motivations, such as test scores;

A hyper-academic focus in preschool is bound to backfire. That said, I question whether preschool is needed at all. The evidence says no.

Pre-K seems to hurt academic success in the long run, and the idea of making it “rigorous” is nonsensical, especially in light of this paper.

One thought on “Sacrificing Play at the Altar of Academic Success

  1. In 2001 as a K-5 principal at a majority upper middle class school in Seattle, I had to argue with parents regarding their demands for structured recess times. They felt those would prevent skinned knees or scraped elbows and/or prevent arguments among the children. I suggested those things helped produce well-rounded children—getting bumps and bruises is part of life and learning to resolve differences with classmates required skills that were also beneficial, lifelong lessons.

    Another battle was stopping teachers from punishing students by denying them recess. I explained if Little Johnny had not done his classwork or misbehaved, keeping him from letting off steam during recess would backfire with even worse behavior during the rest of the day. I gave other options for punishment, such as walking the perimeter of the school yard with a bag to pick up trash or staying after school to help the custodian, if the misbehavior warranted stronger punishment. (The kids hated such tasks.)

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