David Elkind, Ph.D.'s  picture
David Elkind, Ph.D.
Professor and department chairman of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development
Tufts University

Can We Play?

The importance of play in children’s development

Adapted and updated from an article by David Elkind that originally appeared in Greater Good, Spring 2008

Play is rapidly disappearing from our homes, schools and neighborhoods. Over the past two decades, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured and spontaneous play per week. From 1981 to 2003, children’s time spent outdoors fell 50 percent, according to a University of Michigan study. It is no surprise, then, that childhood obesity is now considered an epidemic.

But the problem goes well beyond obesity. Decades of research show that play is crucial to physical, intellectual and social-emotional development at all ages. This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.

Young Girl Finger PaintingIn infancy and early childhood, play is the activity through which children learn to recognize colors, shapes, tastes and sounds—the very building blocks of reality. At the preschool level, children engage in dramatic play and learn who is a leader, who is a follower, who is outgoing and who is shy. Elementary school children use play to learn mutual respect, friendship, cooperation and competition. For adolescents, play is a means of exploring possible identities, as well as a way to blow off steam and stay fit.

For too long we have treated play as a luxury that kids, as well as adults, could do without. But play is worth defending. It is, in fact, essential to leading a happy and healthy life.

Play and Development

Years of research confirm the value of play. A 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics documents that play promotes not only behavioral development but brain growth as well. Israeli psychologist Sara Smilansky’s studies of socio-dramatic play, where children participate in shared make-believe, demonstrate the value of this specific kind of play. “Socio-dramatic play activates resources that stimulate social and intellectual growth in the child, which in turn affects the child’s success in school,” concludes Smilansky in a 1990 study that compared American and Israeli children. “For example, problem-solving in most school subjects requires a great deal of make-believe, visualizing how the Eskimos live, reading stories, and solving arithmetic problems.”

Other research illustrates the importance of physical play—including recess—for children’s learning and development. Psychologist Anthony Pellegrini, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues have found that elementary school children become increasingly inattentive in class when recess is delayed. Similarly, studies conducted in French and Canadian elementary schools found that spending one-third of the school day in physical education, art and music improved not only physical fitness but also test scores and attitudes toward learning.

In recent years, we’ve seen educators, policy makers and many parents embrace the idea that early academics leads to greater success in life. Yet several studies by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Professor at Temple University, and her colleagues showed no advantage in reading and math achievement for children in academic preschools versus those in play-based preschools. But there was evidence that the children in academic schools had higher levels of test anxiety, were less creative and had more negative attitudes toward school.

So if play is that important, why is it disappearing?

The Perfect Storm

The decline of children’s free play is the result of a perfect storm of technological innovation, rapid social change and economic globalization. The all-pervasiveness of television and computer screens has moved childhood indoors. Children who might once have enjoyed a pickup game of baseball now watch the game on TV.

Meanwhile, single and working parents now outnumber the once-predominant nuclear family, in which a stay-at-home mother could provide the loose oversight that facilitates free play. Instead, busy working parents outsource at least some of their former responsibilities to coaches, tutors and trainers. Because of this, we run the risk of pushing them into activities before they are ready. For example, it is only after the age of six or seven that children will spontaneously participate in games with rules, because it is only at that age that they are fully able to understand and follow rules. By pushing young children into team sports for which they are not developmentally ready, we rule out forms of play that once encouraged them to learn skills of independence and creativity.

Finally, a global economy has increased parental fears about their children’s prospects in an increasingly high-tech marketplace. Preschool tutoring in math and programs such as Kumon, which emphasizes daily drills in math and reading, are becoming increasingly popular. And all too many kindergartens have become full-day academic institutions that require testing and homework.

Bring Back Play

We cannot prevent children from self-initiated play; they will engage in it whenever they can. The problem is that we have curtailed the time and opportunities for such play. What is important is balance. If a child spends an hour on the computer or watching TV, equal time should be given to playing with peers or engaging in individual activities like reading or crafts. Another way we can help bring play back into children’s lives is to have schools restore recess for at least half an hour.

We must also address the more general problem of test-driven curricula in schools. When teachers are forced to teach to the test, they become less innovative in their teaching methods, with less room for games and imagination.

But you don’t have to be a teacher to help bring back play. Many neighborhoods badly need more playgrounds, especially in our inner city neighborhoods, where safe play spaces are often in short supply.

Finally, adults need to be models for children. We can shut off the TV and take our children with us on outdoor adventures. We can get less exercise in the gym and more on hiking trails and basketball courts. When adults unite play, love and work in our lives, we set an example that our children can follow. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our children—and build a more playful culture.

Related Reading

“Should Preschools Teach All Work and No Play?” Today Health, msnbc.com

“Playtime in Peril,” American Psychological Association

“School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” Pediatrics