Play Deficit- an alarming trend

“Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process.”

-Stuart Brown Play, How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and invigorates the Soul

What happens when play, a “profound biological process” is interrupted?  Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly clear.  The consequences of play deficit are alarming, both to individuals and communities. . .

All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed

The Loss of Children’s Play: A Public Health Issue

Sixty minutes of daily unstructured free play is essential to children’s physical and mental health. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008)

The decline of play | Peter Gray | TEDxNavesink – YouTube

Consequences of Play Deprivation. Stuart L. Brown (2014), Scholarpedia, 9(5):30449.

American Academy of Pediatrics:  The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds


The problem

“Play is the highest level of child development . . . The plays of childhood are the germinal leaves of later life.”    -Friedrich Froebel

Researchers agree that play is an essential part of a child’s development and that children learn best through play.  (Adults learn best through play, too. . . but we’ll keep that research on hold for another post.)  Research also shows a clear link between the development of social and emotional skills and play experiences.

Play should be an important part of every early elementary classroom, but isn’t.  In my experiences as a teacher it is extremely difficult to incorporate play into a traditional classroom.  The days are too full of looming standards, an overwhelming amount of curriculum that must be covered, mandated benchmarks that must be reached, and seemingly endless assessments.  These academic mandates often take priority over other classroom experiences– never-ending work leaving no time for play!

It is time to rethink our early elementary classrooms.  It is time to be intentional; to acknowledge and incorporate the overwhelming research supporting play based learning.


The Power of Play

When I first began teaching, I recognized that the academic expectations for my kindergartners were not going to decrease, and in fact they have continued to increase over the years.  The key was to find a way to balance the academic rigor with other equally important early classroom experiences.  Unfortunately, most teachers do not have the time, resources, or support to make these well intended ideas a reality.  As a new teacher, I had a great love for my little students, and a strong motivation to become the best teacher I could, but I am not a superstar!  I cannot work 12 hour days creating fun, meaningful, developmentally appropriate, differentiated, standards-based lessons.  So I thought (almost obsessively sometimes) about a better way.  A way to balance what I was required to do with what I knew was best for my students.  

For me, the key to this balance is a system I’m calling Play Based Centers.  Developed over several years, it is a teacher friendly, “ChILD Centered” system.

Ch- Choice for the students and for the teacher

I- Intentional and Independent activities

L-Learning through open ended, guided play

D- Developmentally appropriate experiences and activities.  

So here are the interesting results.  With few exceptions, my kindergarten students have consistently met or surpassed my goals for them.  And the surprising, important key to this success is that it is because I have implemented free-choice, play based, open ended centers, every day, for at least 30 minutes.  While my students are highly engaged in their chosen center or project, I have the flexibility to truly differentiate.  I focus on Individual Student Goals (ISG,) progress monitor, or practice what I call “RTI Tier 1.5.”  I am able to consider each student holistically- determining what social, emotional or academic needs they have at a given time, and providing support for them as individuals.  I am also able to establish strong connections to each student, even those students with the most challenging behaviors, creating a stronger, more enjoyable learning community.  PBC is a balanced system that supports both rigorous academic standards and joyful, play based learning.  

So although I am not a writer, I have started this blog to share this system!  PBC is extremely flexible, teacher friendly and meets a significant need.  I believe this system gives early elementary teachers a unique opportunity to focus on the needs of the whole child.

If problem-solving, communication, collaboration, innovation, and creative thinking are to remain part of our legacy as a species, then play must be restored to its rightful place at the heart of childhood.

-Crisis in the Kindergarten, Why Children Need To Play in School

Alliance for Childhood, 2009