What is the value of play?Over 100 years ago, Caroline Pratt, Patty Smith Hill, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and John Dewey knew the value of play for early childhood, elementary, and early adolescent students. They had little or no difficulty explaining the importance of play for children's cognitive, social, and emotional development (Wolfe, 2002). Things are different in the 21st century. With high-stakes assessment, No Child Left Behind, and competition for limited funding, play has taken a back seat. In fact, play and even naptime have been eliminated from many early childhood education programs. For example, in Jennifer Kilgo's home county in Alabama, administrators did away with naptime for kindergarten children. As Strauss (2004) reports, "Kindergartners in Gadsden, Alabama, discovered that school administrators had eliminated naptime in order to not lose precious seconds preparing for standardized tests" (p. 162).
Of particular concern in the education climate of today is the fact that most teachers are unable to articulate the value of play to administrators, parents, and the public. Each of the following articles is about the value of play in the lives of children. Maxie Kohler, Jennifer Kilgo, and Lois M. Christensen, all professors of education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, jointly reviewed the following articles with the idea of helping educators better explain the significance of play.
IN DEFENSE OF PLAY: Beginning the Dialog About the Power of Play. Myck-Wayne, J. Young Exceptional Children, 2010, 13(4), 14-23. The author wrote this article in response to a new early childhood teacher's request for support about the value of a play. When her administrator questioned the use of play in her classroom, the teacher found it difficult to explain her knowledge about the importance of play to young children's education. Myck-Wayne notes that despite significant research supporting the value of play for young children with and without disabilities in early childhood classrooms, teachers of young children often cannot articulate a rationale for a play-based approach or explain how they facilitate learning through play within the curriculum. Myck-Wayne points out that the educational landscape in the United States has shifted to "prescriptive curricula, standards-based instruction, and standardized tests" (p. 14), which is forcing play out of the education of young children. This increases the need for teachers of young children to understand and articulate the components of effective early education through play-based learning.
The article is particularly helpful to teachers of young children, as it provides a definition of play, a rationale for how play can enhance interventions for young children with disabilities and facilitate learning for all children, and a discussion of how to incorporate play into the curriculum. The article concludes by discussing the role of early childhood educators in advocating for an increased emphasis on play in the learning process for young children. The author calls for the beginning of a dialogue among regular and special early childhood educators so that they will have a clear understanding of the research supporting play and the importance of play in the early learning experiences of all young children. As MyckWayne suggests, "Using research as the foundation, the discussion can explore realistic curricula and meaningful activities to benefit the learning of all children" (p. 21).
SUPPORTING THE PLAY OF PRESCHOOLERS WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS: Implementation of Visual Scripts. Ganz, J. & Flores, M., Young Exceptional Children, 2010, 13(2), 58-70. It is now considered commonplace for young children with disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), to be educated in classes alongside their typically developing peers. This article describes the characteristics of children with ASD and the research base for how to support their communication and social skills during play. The authors emphasize that inclusive play groups are beneficial for young children with disabilities, explaining that "recent research has supported the use of play and social skill groups that include children with ASD and typically developing peers to improve interactions and play skills" (p. 60).
Although young children with ASD often demonstrate delays in social and communication skills, this article shows how specific visual strategies can be used during play to facilitate skill development in children with ASD, as well as other disabilities. Because children with ASD often learn visual information more easily than spoken information, the authors recommend the use of visual strategies, such as written or pictorial schedules, and visual scripts, such as ones suggesting appropriate phrases to use. The specific steps in this approach include: 1) choosing a theme and preparing the setting and materials, 2) choosing learner objectives for the child with ASD, 3) writing the child's script, 4) teaching the script to the child, 5) developing peer instruction cards and teaching them to the typically developing peers, and 6) scripting implementation during play groups. This article includes guidelines, examples, adaptations, and recommendations that should be helpful to teachers of young children with ASD and other disabilities as they implement interventions to support social and communication development during inclusive play activities.
THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF RECESS IN THE SCHOOLS. Ramsetter, C., Murray, R., & Garner, A. The Journal of School Health, 2010, 80(11), 517-526. This article is a wonderful overview of the importance of recess and play. Recess has been under siege for some years, as there are only a finite number of hours in each school day, and educators are grappling for as much time as they can get to teach our children. With everyone so openly watching test scores, the value of recess and unstructured play has been pushed aside. What educators have to realize and act upon is that children need "down time" in order to process what is happening educationally and to unleash the pent-up frustrations and anxieties caused by the demands of academics. In many instances, physical education has taken the place of recess, but both physical education and recess are important in the school day. Each serves its own functions. While physical education usually involves a more structured time, recess is a time of unstructured activity that is important to all the major domains of development--social, cognitive, and physical. This particular article is not an experimental study, but rather is a review of many studies regarding the value of recess and play and their benefits. The article cites a 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study that revealed interesting findings regarding when recess is provided. For example, city school systems reported the fewest average minutes per day dedicated to recess and play, while rural schools reported the highest average minutes per day in recess and play. Time allotted to recess declines as children grow older.
This compilation of studies reviews the many benefits of recess and play. Recess is a time when children can do essentially what they want, whether it be rest, play, engage in imaginative play, interact with others, etc. This freedom is extraordinarily important to the overall development of a child. Children are more attentive in class following recess time, and the article shows that recess aids in the development of social skills. Children cannot acquire the requisite social skills while engaging in structured activities. Thus, play in an unstructured manner, as is available to children during recess, is irreplaceable.
As the authors say, recess benefits the "whole child" in myriad ways, while the main purpose of physical education is to improve physical development. The authors discuss the cognitive/academic benefits of recess, social/emotional benefits, as well as the obvious physical benefits, particularly in a time when childhood obesity is on the rise. Further, such considerations as safety, supervision, duration, and even economics, are reviewed. Finally, limitations, conclusions, and implications for research are discussed.
The authors close the article by stating that "minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as evidenced in this review of the literature. Recess can promote not only physical health, but also social, emotional, and cognitive development. Thus, recess can be considered a complement to, but not a replacement for, physical education" (p. 622).
IMPROVING PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIPS THROUGH BLOCK PLAY. Lin, Y. Education, 2010, 130(3), 461-469. This article regarding the use of block play with children has two purposes: 1) to provide a brief historical overview of how block play contributes to the development of children's cognitive, social/emotional, and motor skills; and 2) to show how time spent in block play between parent and child can enhance the parent-child relationship. Lin begins by providing some historical perspectives on play (those of Freud, Erikson, Froebel, and Piaget). Each of these theorists noted the value of play in the development of children's motor, cognitive, and social/emotional development. Because blocks are one of the most common play objects early in life, the first part of this article describes and reviews how block play contributes to a child's motor, cognitive, and social development.
In the second part of this article, the author offers a model of using block play to contribute to the overall health and well-being of the parent/child relationship. In two-income homes, parents often don't have the time or energy to interact with children as in earlier times. In many instances, children come home to an empty house and must take care of themselves until their parents arrive home from work. Parents have to find innovative ways to gain quality time with their young children.
This author proposes a "Reciprocal Model of Parent-Child Interaction" through the use of block play that includes the following four strategies: 1) observing, 2) listening and supporting, 3) talking and extending, and 4) understanding. The first part of the model, observation, serves to help parents lay a foundation for communicating with their children. By observing children building or otherwise playing with the blocks, parents can gain important "cues" that can be used to ask questions about what happened that day, assess how tired and/or frustrated their child is, etc. One part of observation--eye contact--communicates to the child that the parent is listening and cares for them, which naturally leads to the second aspect of this model--listening and supporting.
In the second stage of the model, as parents interact and play with their children, and as communication is taking place, they can assess "wait time"--the period of time it takes for a child to respond to a parent's inquiry, comment, etc. Having parents respect "wait time" in children builds trust and security between child and parent. This trust leads to the third aspect--talking and extending.
As children trust their parent(s), they will feel comfortable sharing, and the conversations will come more naturally. By asking children open-ended questions, for example, parents can help children to feel free to communicate without reservation or fear of failure or criticism.
Finally, the fourth aspect of this model--understanding--involves parents showing empathy to their children based on whatever emotion they may be communicating. For example, if a child has had a long and tiring day, it will become evident through this model, and the parent can show a sense of understanding about this feeling.
In summary, this article examined how even a very ordinary, inexpensive toy can become a mechanism for enhancing the parent-child relationship. If parents can observe, listen to and support their child, talk and extend a conversation through block play with their child, and provide emotional support and empathy, they will build trusting and sensitive parent-child relationships.
PRESCHOOL TEACHERS' VIEWS OF ACTIVE PLAY. Logue, M. E., & Harvey, H. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 2010, 24(1), 32-49. Logue and Harvey discuss how curricular play supports the interrelated aspects of development in social, physical, emotional, linguistic, and cognitive processes. When young children experience a discovery-oriented curricular approach to early education, including learning through play, the whole child is formatively educated. Ninety-eight teachers of 4-year-old children were interviewed in this study. The findings noted that gender differences were evident through different forms of dramatic play. Preschool teachers stated that their ability to accept more active rough-and-tumble type of dramatic play was strongly influenced by how they viewed the early childhood curriculum and was affected by their coursework in early childhood education programs.
Picking up on children's facial expressions and the ways in which the dramatic play is enacted would enable preschool teachers to better differentiate whether dramatic play is simply pretend or a safety concern. Child development and play education in early childhood education in teacher education programs should be a focus so that early childhood teachers more fully understand why dramatic play is essential for children. It helps children to develop social competence, take on different roles, and solve problems. Thus, teachers need to be able to differentiate between rough-and-tumble play and situations in which a child might get hurt. With more knowledge, preschool teachers can identify what type of dramatic play is appropriate for young children and when it becomes necessary to intervene. The authors call for a balance in the early childhood curriculum, including dramatic play, whereby young children are allowed to run, climb, and play in a safe, yet rough-and-tumble, manner.
NOURISHING CHILDREN'S THINKING THROUGH PLAY. Velu, G. Early Educators: A Journal of the Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), 2011, 17, 5-13. Geeta Velu, the Director of The Preparatory Place in Singapore, observed young children ages 24 to 30 months to determine what they learned from play. In the program for young children that she directs, unsealed boxes, empty milk packets, and empty cans were provided for the children's explorations. The toddlers were allowed to direct their own explorations with support from teachers, and they became engaged in social interactions and coordinated their actions in concert with others. For example, children experimented with sounds by shaking, pushing, and kicking the boxes.
Children explored cause-and-effect relationships using the cans. The children's actions included dropping cans from different heights and pushing them around and around. Again, toddlers test their theories about sound and "demonstrated the dispositions of being flexible, inventive and willing to try things out" (p. 7).
One of the major strengths of this article is a practical section called "Reflecting on Practice," in which Velu describes, in detail, what we can learn from observing toddlers at play. She states, "We can infer that children's play revealed their thinking, communication, personal and social/ emotional skills" (p. 9). Another strength of this section was Velu's explanation of the specific skills and dispositions that children learn about mathematics and language through self-initiated and -directed play. This article is a must for any teacher of toddlers and preschool children who needs specific, concrete suggestions for explaining the value of play to parents or administrators.
A MULTICULTURAL PERSPECTIVE ON PLAY AND LEARNING IN PRIMARY SCHOOL. Lillemyr, O. E, Sobstad, F., Marder, K., & Flowerday, T. International Journal of Early Childhood, 2011, 43(1), 43-65. This article describes a cross-cultural, mixed-methods research study of students in Australia, the United States, and Norway. Both indigenous and non-indigenous populations from each country were participants in this study. "Similarities and differences were documented among Aboriginal, Navajo, and Sami students, compared with non-indigenous (majority) students, in interest in free vs. directed play and learning, aspects of self-concept, and motivation" (p. 44).
Indigenous students tended to prefer teacher-directed play as opposed to free play. They also had fewer opportunities to play and scored significantly lower on measures of self-concept. Although the authors did not explore many of the reasons for the results of this study, they did provide suggestions for enhancing learning through play for both indigenous and non-indigenous populations in all three countries. They found that children learn more through free play and learning when the focus of play: 1) encouraged children to develop social competence, 2) provided occasions for active learning and experimentation, 3) was arranged to encourage socio-cultural identity, and 4) focused on self-awareness and self-esteem.
While free play may be directed by the students, teachers and adults can provide support and scaffolding to help children from various cultures better participate and enjoy the experience of learning through play. Just as children with disabilities may need additional support, children who are not a part of the dominant culture may need encouragement and assistance to better learn through free-play experiences.
Strauss, S. L. (2004). Don't get behind: Update on the Gadsden schedule change. In K. Goodman, P. Shannon, Y. Goodman, & R. Rapoport (Eds.), Saving our schools: The case for public education--Saying no to "No Child Left Behind" (pp. 162-163). Berkeley, CA: RDR Books.
Wolfe, J. (2002). Learning from the past: Historical voices in early childhood education. Mayerthorpe, Canada: Piney Branch Press.