A Manifesto for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Scientific Evidence (synopsis)

by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University), Roberta Michnick Golinkoff (University of Delaware), Laura E. Berk (Illinois State University), Dorothy G. Singer (Yale University)

Internationally, young children are being robbed of playtime in an effort to give them a head start on academic skills like reading and mathematics. Ironically, excising play from the lives of children is a form of “data blindness.” This manifesto presents the scientific evidence in support of three points: 1) Children need both unstructured free time and playful learning under the gentle guidance of adults to best prepare for entrance into formal school, 2) Academic and social development are inextricably intertwined such that academic learning must not trump attention to social development, and 3) Learning and play are not incompatible. Rather, playful learning engages and motivates children in ways that support better developmental outcomes and strategies for life-long learning. If we hope to groom intelligent, socially skilled, creative thinkers for the global workplace of tomorrow, we must return play to its rightful position in children’s lives today.
Mounting evidence shows that the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, with its mandate of high-stakes tests, has undermined rather than upgraded, the quality of education in U.S. schools (Bracey, 2006). Reports are rampant of classroom instruction being transformed into weeks, even months, of intensive training for test taking and correct answers, to the neglect of a broader focus on nurturing children’s critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving, creativity, enthusiasm for learning, and emotional and social competencies—essential ingredients for building a successful, contented, caring, contributing citizenry. A related detrimental by-product of NCLB is a move toward a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum, insensitive to student diversity (Balfanz et al., 2007; Hursh, 2007; Mondoza, 2006).
One pervasive, harmful consequence of NCLB is the filtering down of academic training, with its attendant negative side effects, to America’s early childhood programs. Didactic teaching of the body of academic facts deemed essential for “success” in today’s schools is squeezing out developmentally appropriate education in the early years, the cornerstone of which are rich, playful experiences aimed developing the whole child. As forewarned by Sigel (1987), the use of “hot-housing” techniques to foster early childhood learning has led to a societal focus on structured activities designed to promote academic results rather than the playful learning that engenders thinking and creativity.
Indeed, a recent analysis of the common programmatic features of three widely acclaimed early interventions for low-income children—the Carolina Abecedarian Project, the Chicago Child-Parent Program, and the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program—revealed that each “focused on children’s learning—not just their achievement . . . and [focused] on the whole child—the child’s intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth and well-being” (Galinsky, 2006, pp. 20, 21). Each program’s curriculum included a heavy emphasis on child-initiated activities and ample time for play in richly equipped activity centers. When teacher-directed activities occurred, they were designed to be playful, engaging, and fun. Experiences that fostered literacy and math concepts and skills were consistently embedded in children’s first-hand, everyday experiences.
Despite this evidence, the current reality is that more and more U.S. preschools and kindergartens are becoming academic “boot camps.” In response, increasing numbers of young children are failing to meet the inappropriate standards set for them. For example, in the state of Texas, since 1993 when standardized testing was instituted as a means toward improving public school performance, the number of kindergarten students held back has grown steadily each year (Russell & Lacoste-Caputo, 2006). Academically regimented classrooms, with their repetitive, boring tasks that exceed the attention spans and patience of 3- to 5-year-olds, frequently engender withdrawal, rebellion, and emotional “meltdowns.” These behavior problems are believed to contribute to a current rising tide of expulsions in U.S. preschools (Steinhauser, 2005). Preschool failure may launch these vulnerable children—who are most in need of comprehensive preschool enrichment experiences—on a tragic path of educational failure at a very young age.
While more research is needed, the weight of the extant, large literature is clear: Children learn best through play. In this manifesto, we review converging evidence—derived from correlational, longitudinal prospective, quasi-experimental, and rigorous experimental research—that documents the vital importance of play and playful learning in the design of preschool curricula. Wide-ranging studies confirm that a whole child approach, emphasizing active learning through play, stimulates both cognitive and social development. The literature confirms that children benefit both from unstructured play and from teacher-guided play. Our review shows that playful activities promote:
• oral language development, including vocabulary, story comprehension, and conversational skills
• emergent literacy skills, including print knowledge and phonological awareness
• early math and spatial skills
• diverse cognitive capacities, including sustained attention, problem solving, symbolic representation, memory development, causal reasoning, and creativity
• higher scores on standardized intelligence tests (IQ)
• enhanced knowledge of emotions, which predicts positive social skills and peer acceptance
• cognitive, behavioral, and emotion regulation, including improved capacity to cope with distress

Moreover, a growing number of studies have compared children in “academic” preschool and kindergarten classrooms that emphasize direct, formal instruction with children who are in developmentally appropriate classrooms in which play is a central means of learning (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Dependent variables in these investigations (both concurrent and longitudinal) fall into three categories: measures of children’s motivation, academic achievement (e.g., in reading or math), and social and emotional adjustment to school. Findings indicate that developmentally appropriate curricula in which playful experiences are central foster all these school-readiness outcomes, whereas formal academic instruction interferes with most of them—yielding increased child stress, lower self-ratings of ability, reduced pride in accomplishments, lower expectations for academic success, and less favorable academic test scores (see, for example, Hart, Burts, & Chatsworth, 1997; Hirsh-Pasek, 1991; Marcon, 1993, 1994; Stipek et al., 1998; Stipek, Feiler, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995). Follow-up research reveals lasting effects into the early elementary school years.
In sum, the current, pervasive emphasis on narrowly defined learning, as promoted by the climate of high stakes testing and accountability, relegates play to an extraneous embellishment. It treats preschoolers as if they are miniature primary school children and as if all that matters are a narrow range of academic skills (Zigler, 2007). It is time to define our educational goals in a way that respects what research tells us about the value of play and playful learning. Play is the furthest thing from a waste of children’s time and the best way to prepare young children for later school and life success. It should return it to its rightful place in the early childhood curriculum.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University), Roberta Michnick Golinkoff (University of Delaware), Laura E. Berk (Illinois State University), Dorothy G. Singer (Yale University)

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