Back to articles

Why play is so important

3 kids playing

Play is one of the most important ways children learn. It’s also the way they express their ideas and process what’s happening on a sensory level, as well as socially and emotionally. Through play, children try on all the roles and situations they’ve come across in life.

Research continually shows that young children develop best through meaningful play experiences, yet many preschools are moving away from play-based learning to become more academic in nature, with more teacher-led instruction.

It’s not just in the classroom that play is diminishing. Children are also arriving at preschool with poor play skills. One reason is that they have too many hours of screen time at home during which they “view other people’s creativity rather than developing their own,” says educator and founder of the Childhood Alliance, Joan Almon. In addition, modern toys are often themed around movies or TV shows and come with a clear story line, making it difficult for children to create their own novel stories, she says.

Another reason children are losing valuable playtime is pressure from schools and parents. It seems in our ‘get ahead’ culture that many parents want their children to read in kindergarten. Today this goal is strongly supported by many policy makers and school leaders around the world and preschools are under pressure to prepare their children to be able to read before Grade 1, says Almon.

Teachers are pressured to devote hours every day to test-driven curricula at the expense of play and other free choice activities, says Almon in “Reading at Five: Why?” published in the SouthEast Education Network.

“There is huge pressure on children in grade R,” agrees Margie Froud, principal of Kildare Pre-Primary School in Cape Town. “In grade one the expectations are much higher than they used to be. I have heard grade one teachers saying to other teachers: make sure you give the children homework in grade R to prepare them for grade one.”

“Often parents of pre-schoolers want the work books and craft tables - they want to see what they are paying for! I think parents need to adjust their expectation of pre-school – and see it as a chance for their little one to socialise and play and NOT to get ready for school – that’s what Grade R is for,” says Nubabi occupational therapist Lourdes Bruwer.

“When looking at day care, play group or pre-school options, parents should not expect paper and pencil tasks, they should look for schools that allow sensory and free play rather than checking on the walls for what art has been done,” says Lourdes.

There is no evidence to suggest that early reading is a helpful step for long-term school success. In fact, the result of too little play early on is that children struggle with social and sensory issues, and potentially academically later on.

“We are definitely seeing more sensory, motor, and cognitive issues popping up later in childhood because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age”

“We are definitely seeing more sensory, motor, and cognitive issues popping up later in childhood because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age,” says Lourdes.

“Without movement and the ability to jump, bash and crash with their bodies, children become more and more sedentary and less motivated to move. Movement provides their bodies with the fuel it needs to build up the tension in the muscles so that they are ready for action. Without this movement we will see an increase in attention and concentration challenges – as sensory systems automatically try seek the movement it craves – and we will see gaps in development and learning with spatial confusion on a 2D level when writing and while doing maths,” says Lourdes.

Children who play less are at a disadvantage academically. Instead of information becoming natural body knowledge, which can be used subconsciously to coordinate actions and plan new motor tasks, they need to rely on more cognitive head knowledge to do everyday tasks, which is more tiring and which takes longer. Their work pace will ultimately be slower and task completion will be poorer, explains Lourdes.

Many experts in other disciplines of child development are very concerned about too much academic focus too early on.

Many experts in other disciplines of child development are very concerned about too much academic focus too early on. One is Stephen Hinshaw, a specialist in hyperactive disorders at the University of California at Berkeley, who was quoted in Time magazine in 2003, saying, “Even more vital than early reading is the learning of play skills, which form the foundation of cognitive skills.”

He pointed out that in some European countries children are not taught to read until age seven. “Insisting that they read at five,” he said, “puts undue pressure on a child.” This pressure has continued to mount in the 10+ years since he was quoted, although many parents, educators and therapists see increasing problems as a result.

The New York Times reported that over the last four years, public schools in that city alone saw a 30% increase in the number of students referred to occupational therapists. Similar numbers reflected the same problem in other US cities.

It’s not only in everyday tasks that children are struggling with; some educators have noted increases in aggression a result of reduced play: In 2005 a study of nearly 4000 public preschools by Walter Gilliam of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine found that programs that gave children time for dramatic play every day had a much lower expulsion rate than those that gave time to play only once a month or never — 9% compared to 25%.

All of this leads to the question of whether it makes sense to expect pre-schoolers to spend long hours trying to master skills that come much more easily a year or two later. Since there is no evidence of long-term advantages, and plenty of disadvantages, it’s seems more urgent than ever to protect free play time.

“The mental maps of their body and how it relates to the world around them that children develop when engaged in physical play form the foundation for more complex perceptual skills and will ultimately set the scene for learning to read and write on a 2D level. Without first experiencing it on a body level however, they cannot transfer this knowledge to a 3D or 2D level,” says Lourdes.

Children need daily whole-body sensory experiences to develop strong bodies and minds. “Outdoor play provides a sensory rich environment with the sights, smells, wind and noises related to the outdoors. This feedback ultimately leads to more intense and detailed maps being formed for future reference,” says Lourdes.

It’s through active free play that children start to build many of the foundational life skills they need in order to be successful in all areas of life. “If children are too young they parrot-learn, regurgitating information rather than learning with understanding. We find children who engage in plenty of structured play develop the skills they need in pre-primary school. They then get to grade one and they fly,” says Froud.

Let’s enable the myriad benefits derived from bouncing, running, climbing, jumping, tinkering, building, moulding, imagining – let’s let children play!

Signup Ad

Have you tried the Nubabi Free Trial?

Get unlimited access to Your Parenting Toolkit for 2 weeks for free!

Track, Boost, Explore and Capture your child's growth and development.
Available on both mobile and web.

Sign me up!