The Purpose of Play

Aug 13, 2013

Childhood educator Maria Montessori said, “Play is a child’s work,” basing her entire philosophy about preschool education and caring for children around this concept.

In today’s world of full-day Kindergarten, and increased academic expectations for children, parents may wonder, is play still as relevant and important as it once was?

The Case for Play

Yes! Children discover the world around them and develop social and academic skills through play. Well-planned play-based preschools can use play to teach children all they need to know to prepare for Kindergarten. Research shows that critical social and emotional skills taught through play are a better indicator of long term success than early reading or other academic skills.

Research Offers Examples

Take self-regulation, for example. A group of four-year olds was left alone with a marshmallow and told that if they waited to eat it, they could get a second one. When researchers followed up with the children in the study as teens and adults, they found that the group of 30 percent that waited, were on average better adjusted as high schoolers, scored higher on SAT’s, and were less likely to use drugs or be overweight.

Coloring within the lines or spending time completing work sheets, will not teach self-discipline. Turn-taking, sharing, and cooperating in a classroom help build these skills – and all are learned through play.

The Numbers Show Improved Academics

Preschoolers in play-based programs have improved academic scores and social/emotional skills when older. When comparing academic performance of over 700 preschoolers attending three different styles of preschools (play-based, academic-based, and those with a middle of the road approach), children attending play-based programs outperformed those in the academic group socially and emotionally by the fourth grade. They shoed increased ability to interact appropriately with their peers and learn abstract concepts.

Short-term academic gains of those in the academic programs came with a consequence. These children were more likely to have behavior problems later on, and be less enthusiastic and creative learners.

Combining Play and Skill-Building

Well-planned play-based programs incorporate children’s interests, academic goals and provide learning opportunities through play, teaching children how to explore and expand on concepts.

For example, a unit studying animals in the winter may find children pretending to hibernate, building dens and storing “food” for the winter. Counting nuts to store teaches math skills, engineering concepts are explored through the construction of dens, science skills are developed as they learn which animals hibernate. Teamwork and social skills evolve as children work together.

A Key Component

Play is as much the work of children today as it was in Maria Montessori’s time. For parents and early childhood educators seeking to enhance a child’s academic performance, it is critical that play remains a key component of young children’s experiences.

For More Information

To find out more about electing quality early childhood programs and about what play-based education looks like in action, check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) website. For tips on on playing with your child and how to supporting their learning through play, check out Colorado University Extension’s article "Learning Through Play- A Child's Job".

The web and social media tools such as Pinterest offer a wealth of fun ideas to extend your child’s play at home and beyond! Search for a topic that interests your child or for terms such as “play based learning.”

Carrie Shrier, MSU Extension

 This article by Carrie Shrier is published in partnership with MSU Extension, one of WKAR's partners in Education Services.