I deliberately left the “g” off my title, as that is the way little children generally pronounce the word “playing.” “What are you doing in there?” calls Mother, who thinks it is a bit too quiet in Danny’s room. “I’m just playin’, Mom” comes the reply. Ask any 4-year-old what he likes to do best, and 90 percent of the time you will get one of these three answers:
“Play with my friends."
“Play with my toys.”
A funny thing about the word “just” when used before almost any noun is that it expresses a putdown. For example, “I’m just a housewife” rather than a miracle woman who can manage both a home and a job. Or, “I’m just a foot soldier” rather than someone who makes important decisions. So when a child says, “I’m just playin’” the connotation is that this is low-quality time. But the truth is that in “just playin’” your child is carrying out an important developmental assignment, in the same way that the housewife and foot soldier are.
Children are made for play, and play is made for children. It is through play that they acquire good eye-hand coordination, learn to understand spatial relations, weight, pliability—and even fragility and breakability. These are skills that every child needs. But through play they also learn a great deal about human relations. A child playing tenderly with a doll is expressing her own yearning for a secure bond and a loving relationship. And it is in open-ended play that young children develop imagination and creativity. These qualities are strengthened and reinforced by dramatic play and access to artistic materials.
The Nature of Play
Child researchers have intensively studied play for many years, and described it in many different ways. For the purposes of this article, I offer a simple two-part classification: goal-directed play and open-ended play, often called free play. Both kinds of play are important. In goal-directed play there is usually one solution or right answer to what the child is doing. For example, there is only one correct placement for puzzle pieces. Open-ended play is play with no right answer. Blocks can be used to build a house, a road for trucks, a retaining wall for a cabin or whatever a child desires.
When I first entered the early childhood field some 30 years ago, most preschool programs emphasized only open-ended free play and, to a large extent, denounced goal-directed play and any kind of formal teaching. I got my start as a writer and speaker in the field in part by stressing the importance of goal-directed play, especially for children from low-income, dysfunctional families where there had been little opportunity to acquire some of the skills needed for open-ended play and receptivity to formal teaching.
For example, I stressed that children couldn’t use blocks for imaginative play if they didn’t first have a rudimentary grasp of mass and size and had not gained skill in manipulating blocks for some specific goal. In fact, I was critical of programs that only let the children “just play” throughout the school day.
Fortunately, the position that there was room for some formal teaching and teacher-guided play in early enrichment activities quickly took hold, and now most quality early childhood curricula include experiences with skill-enhancing toys and place a rich supply of such materials at the children’s disposal.
Have We Gone Too Far?
In America, ideas seem to dangle from a pendulum and swing back and forth. With the wonderful current emphasis on early literacy, and with increasing awareness of how inadequately prepared for formal education many of our children are, free play seems to have been thrown overboard. It has been demonized as a timewaster for children who should be engaged in academic pursuits.
As usual, when something goes overboard, we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Today, as much as at any time in history, educators need to be reminded of the incredible skills that open-ended play fosters: imitation, symbolic play, social skills, attentiveness, sharing and taking turns.
Support for free play came recently in the form of a major report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The authors lament that playtime has been sacrificed to make way for more pre-academic learning activities during the school day and for more scheduled “classes” after school. The report went on to point out that through free play children gain confidence in their abilities, develop creativity and imagination, learn to make and keep friends and integrate other learning opportunities. The report urges pediatricians to support parents who want to resist the disappearance of child-initiated play activities and to make certain that the family schedule allows time for them.
A Plea for Balance
What is most important is that those who control children’s daily schedules—parents at home, and teachers or curriculum supervisors at school—resist an all-or-none approach. I wouldn’t want to see us go back to a preschool day offering nothing but free play. But nor do I like it that in some preschools the daily schedule allows almost no time for such play.
As I look over schedules followed in some preschools, I am amazed to see that they are not drastically different from those used with 4th and 5th graders. That is, there are so many minutes for language arts, for math and so forth. If the frenzied transporting of children to organized after-school activities leaves no time for parents to get down on the floor and “just play” with the child, something is not right.
If you ask your child, “What did you do at school today?” and she answers, “Reading and math,” be sure to follow up with the question, “Did you get to spend any time just playing?” If the answer is “No,” see what you can do to make certain that this vital part of your child’s development is not neglected.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.