The Importance of Learning Through Play

Recognizing the Problem

Childhood “experts” are finally taking play seriously. One group advocating for more play, the US PLAY Coalition, says the erosion of play in modern American culture leads to “greater incidences of obesity, attention deficit disorder, and limited creativity.”

The Alliance for Childhood, another group advocating more play, has published studies showing that kindergarten students in Los Angeles and New York City spent four to six times more minutes in direct instruction on reading and math than in free play. Many kindergarten classrooms no longer contain blocks, sand and water tables, and props for dramatic play: “In many kindergarten classrooms there is no playtime at all. Teachers say the curriculum does not incorporate play, there isn’t time for it, and many school administrators do not value it.”

The Gesell Institute reports that much of the emphasis on early academics is in vain. Children aren’t any smarter than they were 50 years ago. Many kindergarten children aren’t developmentally able to read or sit still for academic lessons. Meanwhile they are missing out on the opportunity to develop their imaginations through play.

Even if experts understand the value of play, they might have difficulty convincing some parents of its value. Children shuttled between lessons and organized sports, and then expected to do hours of homework, don’t have much time for free play. Harried parents may not have the patience for play, which can be loud, messy, and appears unproductive.

Importance of Free (Unstructured) Play

learning through free play

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a comprehensive study titled The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. The study identified risks and dangers of not getting enough play in respect to a child’s development.

In the study, AAP identifed the hurried American life-style as one of the main causes for a child not getting enough play time. It is equally important for parents to be involved in bonding and relationship building with their children through play. The philosophy of families slowing down and finding time to play together is an important aspect of Amish culture.

The highly-driven American lifestyle has lead to many families relying on scheduling every minute of their lives, often with no time left for spontaneous play. Many researchers feel free play is critical for a child’s brain development. According to Sergio Pellis, Researcher at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, “The experience of play changes the connection of neurons at the front end of the brain”. It is believed that these changes during childhood help wire the brain’s executive control centers, which help with problem solving, planning, and developing positive and complex social interactions.

In 2015, Michael Patte, PHD, wrote an article titled The Decline of Unstructured Play. In it, Dr. Patte states “For past generations, play was a child-initiated, open-ended activity. But for many kids today, play has become adult-directed and highly structured, and has a significant impact on children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional growth.” Dr. Patte gives numerous reasons for today’s decline in free play, as well as the negative impact this can have on our children.

Benefits of Play

Psychologists and researchers have found that play is critically important to positive child development. Playing helps children process new information and experiences, allowing for a lifetime of benefits. Even as adults, we can relate to the benefits of play and how it affects our mood and experience, which in turn makes for overall better mental and physical health.

Play offers the following benefits:

  • Improve Class Room Focus/Attention Span
  • Decrease Disruptive Behavior
  • Correlate to Higher Reading and Math Scores
  • Teach Empathy/Life Skills
  • Promote Critical Thinking
  • Provide Stress Relief
  • Help Develop Sense of Self
  • Combat Childhood Obesity
  • Develop Imagination, Creativity, and Healthy Brain Function
  • Assist Strategy, Learning, and Problem Solving