Education’s increasingly narrow focus on tests and targets overlooks play’s harder-to-measure contributions to child development.

Policy makers should stick with play as an educational priority even though the importance of play in child development is sometimes hard to measure and, hence, difficult to defend.

They shouldn’t be seduced by increasingly narrow approaches that threaten to diminish the importance of play in child development. An overreliance on high-stakes testing sometimes fails to recognise the potential of play’s sometimes mysterious but obviously vital role.

There are three reasons – some barely appreciated – for emphasising play in child development. First, play can unlock children’s diverse ways of learning. Second, it helps develop learning outside the classroom. Third, play may have an important role in reducing crime.

Learning through play highlights different pathways to child development

Children, through their many forms of play, mark out alternative paths to learning and, hence, child development. The diversity of ways to learn is clear from the wide cultural variations in early play. ‘One size does not fit all’ is play’s message to learning. There is no universal theory of child development, demonstrates Jaipaul Roopnarine, one of the seven leading play researchers who have contributed to the Child and Family Blog. Roopnarine contrasts, for example, the highly involved play practices of ‘helicopter parents’ and ‘tiger moms’ in some societies with the attitudes of Mayan mothers in Guatemala who see play as perfunctory to childhood development.

Individual children take different play paths, guiding their learning through play that is most appropriate to their capacities and potential. They cleverly avoid what they already know or might find too difficult to understand, demonstrates Celeste Kidd. Her fascinating eye-tracking studies with babies show how smart they can be in their seeming distraction. Their play patterns provide vital information about what children already know or can easily learn.

“Don’t be seduced by approaches that threaten to diminish the importance of learning through play.”

On the other hand, there remains considerable uncertainty about the precise value of certain forms of play, following Angeline Lillard’s debunking of contemporary beliefs that extra pretend play builds cognitive skills and creativity. Lillard could find no reliable evidence for this common belief. Her findings suggest when learning through play is rooted in real life, it is more beneficial to child development than, for example, play with toys.

Yet Lillard’s findings don’t mean that childhood imaginative play should be condemned to irrelevance. Imaginative play is everywhere, a marker of humanity, and it goes on throughout life, as Paul Harris points out. It clearly remains important, he says, despite our incomplete understanding of its mechanisms.

Learning through play occurs outside school

Amid debate about the importance of play in child development during early years’ education, many have remarked on its disappearance from public spaces. That loss is being addressed in exciting new ways. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff show, in their work, how developing supports for outdoor play – on sidewalks, supermarkets, even bus-stops – can create innovative opportunities for learning.

Indeed, schools would be wise to pay attention to this exemplar of learning through play that is emerging out in the streets. Early evidence suggests that the playful learning being developed in the Learning Landscapes projects may hold great potential, in particular, for tackling educational inequities.

“Be wary of relegating learning through play any further from formal educational settings.”

Fathers – and their forms of play – are also allies in challenging such social injustice, finds Natasha Cabrera. Her work has established that play with dad can help bridge cognitive, social and emotional learning gaps between low-income children and their better-off peers. Cabrera points out that low-income dads are often extremely good at the challenging wh-question communications which so benefit children’s cognitive development. They can also be very good at the rough-and-tumble play that supports children’s social and emotional learning.

Play is correlated with reduced crime

 There is a powerful criminal justice argument for promoting childhood play. Specifically, deprivation of play in childhood is correlated with later convictions for violent, antisocial activities. According to Stuart Brown, murderers typically have no memory of ‘normal’ childhood play. “Bullying and inappropriately acted out aggression were their ‘play’ patterns,” Brown explains in his reflections from a career that has examined 6,000 individual play histories.

Taken together, these experts’ contributions create compelling perspectives on the importance of play in child development. At a very basic level, play can encourage children to stay in education. Educators often comment that creative play – particularly through arts subjects – can support regular school attendance, especially among disadvantaged children, who may be particularly prone to feeling alienated by dry over-concentration on core curriculum subjects.

Be wary, then, of tests and targets that threaten to push learning through play any further from formal education. The rigidity of these institutional environments may sometimes result in the very opposite of what they set out to achieve.


Header photo: Philippe Put. Creative Commons.