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Robin Stevens Payes
WordsWork Communications

Why Play Equals Learning

Children have increasingly less time for play, but play is a crucial part of how kids learn to cooperate, communicate and think creatively.

Since the 1970s, time for play has declined a couple of hours a week for kids. In 1981, a typical school-age child in the United States had 40 percent of her time open for play. By 1997, available playtime had shrunk to 25 percent. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., the H. Rodney Sharp Professor at the University of Delaware, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Professor in the department of psychology at Temple University, have been sounding the alarm about diminishing playtime since they first noted the trend in the 1980s.

LearnNow asked Drs. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek about the implications. Here’s what they have to say about why child’s play is integral to learning, the trend toward less play and how to reverse it.

“We need to think of play as a kind of metaphor for anything we throw ourselves into wholeheartedly.”

LearnNow: What is play?

Kathy: People have been asking that for centuries, if not millennia. There are many definitions. Free play is open ended, directed by the child. It may have some goals set by the child. A key to free play is that kids are having fun in the process and, so, are intrinsically motivated to do it without being pushed by anyone else. Where they seem to be thoroughly engaged while doing it.

Alison Gopnik explains to Stephen Colbert what babies can teach us about learning.

Then there’s guided play: You can sometimes populate the environment so that children can make discoveries as they explore objects, relationships, interactions with others. Guided play also can take place when adults ask children about what they are doing and help them discover things they are naturally are interested in—like what makes a triangle a triangle. When done right, Montessori is a good example of a guided play environment.
When we, as adults, buy certain toys for kids, it’s great for them when we play along. Remember the board game Chutes and Ladders? Research tells us that when you play along and answer kids’ questions in the course of the game, they learn lots about numbers.

LearnNow: So guided play is the same as purposeful play?

Kathy: Playful learning is what we’ve come to call it, and how we’ve encouraged others to think about it. We think you need both free and guided playtime. Guided play ought to be one of the pedagogies, or ways of instruction in a preschool environment.

LearnNow: Why do we play? Is this human nature?

Kathy: There’s got to be a pretty deep evolutionary force urging children to play. Animals do it too. It’s like practicing things in a safe environment. The kids who pretend to be pirates or pretend to take on the social roles of Mommy and Daddy, what are they doing? They’re learning in those roles. Creating a ladder for learning, and learning about social and cultural morés.
Roberta: So the problem now is that play has declined a couple of hours a week for kids since the 1970s. In 1981 a typical school-age child had 40 percent of her time open for play. By 1997 the time for play had shrunk to 25 percent.

We are wearing kids out by engaging in “drill-and-kill” activities—flash cards, worksheets—and testing for “factoids” rather than playful and meaningful learning, even at the youngest ages.

Kathy: We’re throwing play by the wayside. It’s a perfect storm. Play has become a four-letter word. You throw out the healthy activities kids love to engage in and pressure them to perform. We all suffer from a disease we call “manic compression”: trying to multitask when the research says we can’t. The brain does not do well when challenged to consider multiple activities simultaneously. When we multitask, we lose 25 percent of our mental operating budget.
Roberta: This limit to mental energy plays out to be even more challenging for children. When we sit preschool kids on a rug for 40 minutes and expect them to pay attention to a teacher’s lesson, we are going against their nature.

LearnNow: What other consequences are there of this emphasis on having children sit still and listen at such an early age?
Roberta: When we take away time for them to explore without a parent holding them by the hand, we teach them that no risk is safe. Children need to have gradually increasing responsibility, and that comes through play. We all did it and we all profited from our growing independence. It infantilizes children not to be able to run around on their own—to cross streets on their own, go places by themselves. We take away their ability to grow into responsible human beings.
Kathy: When children play, they’re both playing for the moment and to rehearse the skills of the future. They’re not consciously thinking, “I’m playing to be a better adult,” but that’s what it comes down to. They’re learning skills about persistence. They’re learning skills about cooperation. Building with blocks that may stay in place or may fall down, and being determined to take the time to rebuild, helps them learn the persistence to make that tower taller, to add that one extra block. They’re learning skills about physics and math. But at the same time, they’re learning in the moment how to conquer and achieve or maybe to be a scientist and test it to see how things really work.

Roberta: We know that play teaches children vital skills. Through free and guided play, children are really learning what we call the six Cs: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. We are confusing learning with memorization and academic achievement with success.

LearnNow: If play is a rehearsal for grownup life skills, why has society deemed play to be dispensable?

Roberta: The shift has to do in part with our changing world. “We are losing the race against Singapore and China.” This was the headline from the recent PISA (OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment) scores, where the U.S. ranked 23rd in math, behind Poland, Estonia and Belgium.
Parents are more concerned now about their children’s place in the economy. They think play is just play and not worth much. Parental anxieties and concerns lead them to buy adult-structured lessons for kids and to buy fancy electronic toys to be competitive.

Kathy: Parents hear the headlines and worry their children are falling behind. So in a global world, the metrics change. We become more aware that everyone is moving up the educational ladder—somewhat because of technology. As a parent, I see this and want my child to move up too. I think we’re fear-struck. And fear makes us anxious.

So assessment has become a huge industry in the United States, accountability becomes the norm, and learning is defined through a narrow lens. We are confusing learning with memorization and academic achievement with success. Our schools become factories for narrowly construed accountability.

LearnNow: Is there a way out of this conundrum?

Roberta: Absolutely! We need to think about how we want our kids to come out. Thinking solely about scores will hurt us in the long term. We need to educate for the 6Cs. We will not have critical thinkers, creative innovators, confident enough to take risks if we don’t. Content is just one of the 6Cs. Right now, it’s all about good scores on math and reading, but there is so much more our kids need to be competitive in a global world. If we’re not collaborators and good communicators, we will not be among leaders in the future. Our children will simply be good robot test takers.
“I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t know about the importance of play and how kids learn best, but they are insecure in following their instincts.”
“Children need some time to explore the world without adults telling them how to look.”

LearnNow: How do we reverse this focus on prescribed curricula and teaching to the test?

Kathy: We want to help parents see through the looking glass to the scientific evidence. We need to dramatically demonstrate what learning and education has to look like if America is to remain a leader—what does our brain trust need to know?
If we want our children to be the bosses of the future and not just worker bees, they have to play and invent. The 6Cs should be the outcome of education.

Roberta: What you’re asking, really, is how do we change the minds of the world? We’re trying. We want to get the media to show what science is doing. We are trying to make it a campaign, through the Ultimate Block Party and events like it around the country, to drive a movement. I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t know about the importance of play and how kids learn best, but they are insecure in following their instincts. I’ve rarely met an educator who doesn’t know this and feel this. How do we give them permission to know that their instincts are right and that the science supports them?
One goal of such a movement is to show policy makers that there is support—both in the science and from parents and educators—for integrating playful learning into education.

Kathy: We want to be careful about this: We’re not saying send kids out to pasture to play all day. What we’re saying is discovery-based learning has intrinsic value. Children need some time to explore the world without adults telling them how to look. But we also need guided play, where parents, teachers and caregivers play alongside children, implicitly guiding their discoveries and understandings.

Of course, there are times for didactic learning too. Sometimes telling kids what they need to know is efficient. But it doesn’t always stick and get applied to new problems. So we want to be careful not to set up the debate as a question of instructional learning versus play-based learning. Both of these have value. But I don’t think we’ve found the right balance.

LearnNow: How do we find that balance?

Roberta: We need to ask the right questions. But if we don’t have the right inputs, we’re not going to have the right outcomes. We need to rethink what we want for kids in society. Then we can push for changes in policy, education and, most importantly, family attitudes to see that play and work are two sides of the same coin.

Kathy: Folks are recognizing that if we don’t make a change in the way we educate and think about education, it will be too late. This is not unlike climate change. If we get it wrong now, in 20 years we’ll pay a huge price.

Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek have coauthored several books, including Einstein Never Used Flashcards, Play = Learning and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool.

Learn More:

“The Ultimate Block Party,” by Robin Stevens Payes, about how one concerned group got 75,000 adults and children to play and learn in Central Park

Related Reading:

“Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentun,” by Hilary Stout, New York Times