streetlights vs screen lights

Are you from a generation that was reminded to “head home when the streetlights come on?”  Well, consider yourself fortunate. Things have changed. A lot. Increasingly, a rich, play-filled childhood is an exception and a privilege of the few.  Ask your average family to describe their days, and “busy” is the answer you’ll most likely get. And what about the children? Unfortunately, they just aren’t playing.        

Children are now primarily spending their waking hours in scheduled, adult-directed activities.  There is very little “free” time left over. And how are they spending the majority of this precious free time that is not controlled by adults?   You guessed it- on screens.  At one point children stopped playing when the streetlight came on, now they aren’t playing because they are distracted by the screen-lights of devices.  

No one doubts the substantial benefits of technology, and I want to make it clear that I am not anti-screen time.  I am however, an advocate of adult monitored, extremely limited screen use by young children. There are only so many hours in a day, and quality play is substantially reduced when screens become the primary way children spend their free time.  Why does it even matter? Why are play experiences so important?  

Researchers from diverse fields of study agree that play experiences provide numerous benefits that we are just beginning to understand.   Conversely, the absence of quality play experiences can have negative impacts on a child’s development.  So turn off those screen lights and go play!

“High-level dramatic play produces documented cognitive, social, and emotional benefits.  However, with children spending more time in adult-directed activities and media use, forms of child play characterized by imagination and rich social interactions seem to be declining.”  Developmentally Appropriate Practice Guidelines From: Principles of Child Development and Learning that Inform Practice Copyright © 2009 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children

Play is a Brain Changer

Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. -Dr. Stuart Brown, Play, How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Early play is practice for life.  



Life is hard, we can use all the practice we can get!  And the earlier, the better. The key to successfully playing the game of life is through executive functioning skills.  The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has a helpful summary of this complex bundle of skills: “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

Executive functioning skills are essential for success in school, career and without exaggeration- in life!  Play seems to be the primary way that children gain and strengthen these skills. Using MRI technology, “researchers have found that play actually develops the part of the brain that enables a child to have executive functioning skills .  . . which are essential to academic success and success in the adult years”. 7,4,22 Pretend Play and Brain Growth: The Link to Learning and Academic Success Gesell Institute of Child Development Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., MBA Executive Director Gitta Selva Director of Programs and Editorial Services 

Alarmingly, statistics show that children are playing less and less each year.  Several trends are contributing to this childhood decline in self-directed free time, including increases in structured, adult-led activities, and significant increases in screen-time at every age level.  To put it simply- children just don’t have time to play. This significant decline in childhood play has consequences that we are just beginning to understand. In a 2018 statement on play, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function.  (

Playful vs Free play

In today’s world, many parents do not appreciate the importance of free play or guided play with their children and have come to think of worksheets and other highly structured activities as play.‍  –PEDIATRICS Volume 142, number 3, September 2018 5 Downloaded from by guest on December 31, 2018

Free-play, or simply “play” is defined here as freely chosen, self-directed activity, not to be confused with “playful,” adult-directed activity.  Research shows that children benefit from a balance of both of these:  adult-directed and self-directed experiences. Just as children benefit from both hearing books being read aloud to them by adults and practicing reading books themselves, a balanced classroom includes both adult-directed and child-directed experiences.  

Of course children learn through playful activities, but let’s remember what free play really means!   Teacher-led songs and games are wonderful, but they are by no means a substitute for free play.  Let’s not forget this!

Adult directed play is not “free-Play. . .”.  “Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives.  It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing . . . –Peter Gray, Free to Learn


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