Credit: Liv Ames for EdSource Today
Esmeralda Acosta enjoys the play equipment at the day care center for the children of migrant workers in Watsonville.

When it comes to early childhood education, child’s play may well be serious business. Fun and games bring more than just joy. They may be the key to helping children thrive in tough times, experts say.

Since young children don’t often have an opportunity to exercise choice and control, free play can be a liberating experience, nurturing independence and relieving stress. A growing body of research is making the case for play as a way to boost the well-being of young children as the pandemic drags on and concerns over learning loss and mental health issues escalate.

Play is such a powerful force, some research suggests, that it can be used as a tool to close achievement gaps in children ages 3 to 6. One recent report, which analyzed 26 studies from 18 countries, found that in disadvantaged communities from Rwanda to Ethiopia, children showed significantly greater learning gains in literacy, motor and social-emotional development when attending child care centers that use a mix of instruction and free and guided play as opposed to those that focus solely on academics.

“We have the data that proves that play changes everything. It changes attitudes, and it changes outcomes,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an expert in the role of play in learning. “Play and learning are not incompatible. That’s a false dichotomy. Play is not just wasted free time. If it’s used properly, it can be a deeply powerful tool to increase children’s learning in math and science.”

Beyond the realm of mere enjoyment, play can function as what experts call “a laboratory of the possible,” where creativity blossoms and critical thinking is born. Building a fort or engaging in a game of make-believe can be a springboard to learning.

“Common sense tells us that humans learn better when they are internally motivated. We learn more when we enjoy the learning process,” said Gennie Gorback, president of the California Kindergarten Association. “Play improves memory. It allows children to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them. Children learn high-level, intangible concepts such as the laws of gravity, conservation of liquids/mass, mathematical concepts such as more vs. less, all through hands-on, interactive play.”

“Play is not just wasted free time. If it’s used properly, it can be a deeply powerful tool to increase children’s learning in math and science,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

In addition to sparking cognitive skills, experts also suggest that play can help children cope with the trauma of growing up during a pandemic. Leading pediatric experts recently declared a national emergency in children’s mental health and the Surgeon General has called for a swift response to the deepening crisis among youth today.

Play might be a path to help kids heal from the stress and strain of the last few years, some say.

“Play is an outlet for a child to relieve stress by focusing on something enjoyable,” Gorback said. “Young children need to be given the gift of time to gain the important interpersonal skills that they did not develop during isolation and lockdown. Caregivers should intentionally provide opportunities for play.”

While adults tend to associate play with pleasure, many experts see it as a cornerstone of the social-emotional learning that helps build executive function skills. Play can actually help build the architecture of the growing brain, experts say.

“Play is not frivolous: It enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions,” as an American Academy of Pediatrics report put it. “When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior; in the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important.”

Some experts fear that the intense focus on academic rigor in recent years has led to a decrease in playful learning. They suggest that children need more time for play in the wake of the pandemic, not less.

“When did play become a dirty word?,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “What counts as success? Maybe success is more than a test score. Especially when the tests are not formative. They don’t help you learn. They create trepidation. We need a new mindset that builds on what we know about how children learn.”

Recess, once a hallowed time on the school calendar, has gotten shorter in recent years, experts say, as the focus has shifted toward increasing instructional time to meet academic benchmarks.

“Children need time for free play — to freely investigate the social, emotional and objective world,” said Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. “Playing with other children helps them develop social skills and emotional self-regulation.”

In fact, the time on the playground pays off in the classroom with calmer children who have an easier time focusing on the lesson. A child who gets enough time on the swings, experts say, is less likely to act out in class.

“Time matters. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an hour of moderate to vigorous activity per day,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “This benefits academic progress, mental health and physical health. Recess is one way to help.”

However, access to play and exercise is not equal. One recent study showed that low-income kindergartners often get less physical activity than their higher-income peers. Such disparities may only deepen achievement gaps.

That’s one reason experts recommend that the spirit of playfulness should not be confined to the jungle gym. It should be invited into the classroom as well to help boost learning.

“Play is not only about having recess,” Barnett said. “Play can be incorporated into the ‘academic’ part of the day.”

Playful learning may be the optimum way to teach, experts say. They suggest that teachers and parents can build academic skills without dulling children’s natural curiosity. The goal is to make learning fun.

“Children are naturally inquisitive. They have a fire in their eyes. They want to explore everything. We should not beat it out of them,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “Academic enrichment is critical, but the trick is to deliver it in a playful way. Learning should be joyful. It shouldn’t be boring. If you are just memorizing the content, there is no deep learning.”

Children who dress up and tell stories are learning how to shape a narrative, a precursor to learning to read and write, experts say. Children playing a board game where they have to count the spaces are learning about numbers and values, laying a foundation for math.

“We need to move the conversation beyond play versus academic, and focus on the kind of playful learning researchers have shown contributes to young children’s academic skills without undermining their motivation to learn,” Stipek said. “When I talk about ‘playful learning,’ I’m talking about planned, intentional learning activities that are fun and engaging for children.”

Teaching through play combines several advantages, experts say. Children are often more relaxed, focused and engaged during play because they enjoy it.

What children learn through play, teachers say, they are far more likely to remember. Engagement is the secret sauce.

“The science of learning shows us that active learning is more effective than passive learning,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “That means that lectures don’t work as well as hands-on, experiential learning. We need to build better thinkers in the 21st century, creative thinkers who can’t be outsmarted by a robot.”

As we come to terms with the educational implications of the pandemic, many are calling for a reappraisal of the value of play and the joy of learning. Especially in the early grades, building a relationship with students, giving them positive reinforcement and sparking their creativity and imagination may be the key to mastery of content.

“Early childhood educators who focus on academics so intensely that play gets lost are missing the opportunity to build positive relationships with their students and the opportunity to create intentional play experiences,” Gorback said. “Early childhood educators who create ample opportunities for play allow their students to grow their interpersonal skills, develop higher-level vocabulary and understand their worlds in deep and meaningful ways.”

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  1. Tiff Gregers 5 months ago5 months ago

    How interesting that you talk about how humans learn better when they are motivated from the inside. I want to donate to a great cause this month. I will find a good donation program for child education in the area.

  2. The Nest 8 months ago8 months ago

    Hello Karen, wonderful blog on early child education system. At an early age, it is very important for children to explore and open their minds and I think playing any game can help them. Thanks!

  3. Pam Scheffer 8 months ago8 months ago

    Loved everything this article said. Sharing with everyone.

  4. Old teacher 8 months ago8 months ago

    Well done, this is not new, been teaching for 40 years and experiential play is now limited to 10-15 minutes with of course snack and bathroom and then lunch recess. 30 min recess daily for all elementary students should be required in California and more for TK and K

  5. Jim Minervino 8 months ago8 months ago

    This is an excellent article. I am forwarding it to everyone I know.

  6. Kristina Jones 8 months ago8 months ago

    Thank you for this article Karen! I am excited to share it with my community, team and my daughter's school. We can all think back to our childhood and reflect on how we probably learned the most useful life skills on the playground. Even though my company Guardian Lane is a virtual content platform we require all experts to bring play into the projects they record for grieving children to watch and do. Thank … Read More

    Thank you for this article Karen! I am excited to share it with my community, team and my daughter’s school. We can all think back to our childhood and reflect on how we probably learned the most useful life skills on the playground. Even though my company Guardian Lane is a virtual content platform we require all experts to bring play into the projects they record for grieving children to watch and do. Thank you again for sparking inspiration to add even more PLAY!

  7. Eileen 8 months ago8 months ago

    Best article I think I’ve read on EdSource and spot-on.