Why Not Play?

byMoshe Shtuhl, Ph.D.

Every month we meet with directors of preschools that participate in the Alliance program, a preschool staff training program offered by Family Compass. At last month’s meeting the conversation turned to children’s play. There was a unanimous agreement among the fifteen directors attending that play is nature’s gift to children as it promotes a broad range of essential developmental skills. The preschool directors know this from their personal experience in the field and they are also familiar with the extensive body of research showing vast benefits of play, especially in early childhood. (In a previous newsletter I wrote an article, The Serious Business of Play talking about play and its benefits).

The preschool directors shared their impression that these days children often do not get sufficient opportunity to play. They described the all too familiar picture of children driven to extra-curricular activities by their very devoted and often over tired parents at the end of a stressful day. Though these extracurricular activities might be interesting and quite helpful, frequently there is little time left to relax, hang out and …play. Studies that have meticulously followed up on children’s daily schedules confirmed this impression that children these days indeed have less time to play then before.

We all wondered about why this is so… Parenting is probably one of the most demanding (and rewarding) jobs, but enabling children to play is actually, relatively speaking, not too hard. Some children need more direct support to help them play (a topic that will be discussed in a future newsletter), but most children just need a safe place, supervision, simple toys (that don’t need to be fancy or expensive at all), and at times a friend or sibling to play with. Furthermore, you don’t need to cajole children to play. They love playing because nature and evolution innately direct them to engage in this most important activity, and if it were up to them, they would play all day long..

So play is an activity that is widely available, and highly valuable. No extra costs, not much driving, if at all, and is most agreeable to children. So, why doesn’t it happen as much?

One plausible reason is that children spend much time on various media (see Mr. Mark Gardner, LCSW article on Managing Digital Media with Your Child). But it is my impression that there are two other reasons for this;

1. One of the directors recalled a visit of a prospective child and his father to her preschool. When the father was told about play time in the preschool he remarked; so in your preschool the children play and they don’t learn anything? The directors in the meeting chuckled when they heard this, as they are familiar with this perception of play. This perception can be summarized: “play is play and work (or learning) is work”. Or, “no sweat, no gain”. Indeed, teaching children to engage in effortful work on a task and persevere is an important goal. But in early childhood there is no better way to learn it than in play. Just think about a child playing pretend with other children. Here, the child needs to listen to the other children, respond in-context to what they say, remember to talk from the perspective of the character, not get distracted by other things going on, exhibit the flexibility of following the story line when it does not go their way, express feelings of the character, contain their own feelings, and much, much, more.

In other words, the idea that play is not hard work is just not correct. It is just that children, due to the artful work of evolution, are innately and highly motivated to engage in the serious business of play and therefore they don’t perceive it as “work”. They are also too good at it for it to seem like work. They play so effortlessly and with such joy that they appear to be having too much fun to be working.

2. Imagine after spending time teaching your child to add numbers, she spontaneously remarks that if, as promised, you will give her one candy today and two tomorrow, then she will have three candies altogether. Seeing the fruit of your labor and your child’s progress you feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. This is true not only with teaching math but with anything that she clearly understands and is able to communicate her knowledge.

When children play, this kind of clear evidence of progress is not so easily available. Mastery of math procedures, letters, facts (colors, continents, etc.) provides immediate feedback when children are able to recall it. In play, children primarily learn not facts but “how to” – how to listen and respond to others, how to control their feelings, how to cope with anxiety, how to go about completing a task (like building with Legos), etc. Learning “how to” is more gradual and it is harder to see evidence right away of the fruits of play, which might lead to the perception that play is something we do to have a good time but that does not provide developmental benefits. However, similar to watering a slow growing plant, we now know that the long term benefits of play are significant.

One of the preschool directors in that meeting brought a poem that conveys the relevance of play to development:

By Anita Wadley

When I’m building in the block room, please don’t say I’m “Just Playing.”
For you see, I’m learning as I play about balances and shapes.
Who knows, I may be an architect some day.

When I’m getting all dressed up; setting the table, caring for the babies,
Don’t get the idea I’m “Just Playing.”
For, you see, I’m learning as I play;
I may be a mother or father some day.

When you see me sitting in a chair, reading to an imaginary audience.
Please don’t laugh and think I’m “Just Playing.”
For, you see, I’m learning as I play;
I may be a teacher someday.

When you see me combing the bushes for bugs,
Or packing my pockets with choice things I find; don’t pass it off as “Just Play.”
For, you see, I’m learning as I play:
I may be a scientist someday.

When you see me engrossed in a puzzle or some “plaything” at my school,
Please don’t feel the time is wasted.
For, you see, I’m learning as I play. I’m learning to solve problems and concentrate.
I may be in business some day.

When you see me cooking or tasting foods,
Please don’t think that because I enjoy it, it is “Just Play.”
I’m learning to follow directions and see differences.
I may be a cook someday.

When you see me learning to skip, hop, run and move my body;
Please don’t say I’m “Just Playing.”
For, you see, I’m learning as I play; I’m learning how my body works.
I may be a doctor, nurse or athlete someday.

When you asked me, what I’ve done at school today,
And I say “I just played”; please don’t misunderstand me.
For, you see, I’m learning as I play.
I’m learning to enjoy and be successful in my work;
I’m preparing for tomorrow.
Today, I am a child and my work is play.

What do you think about this topic? Please send us your thoughts and we might include them in one of our future newsletters.