It's time to get serious about play
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) raises concerns that even in preschool, an increasing tendency to focus on narrow goals in education and “structured activities designed to promote academic results,” are squeezing out time for “playful learning.”
There is growing consensus that to succeed in today’s world, young people need a set of foundational skills and competencies that include things like the capacity to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve. They need competencies that support persistence, relationship-building, communication skills, and critical thinking. According to the report’s authors, many of these vital skills are built through play. But children and young people aren’t getting enough time to develop them.
The AAP is taking the issue so seriously, it is advising doctors to give out “prescriptions for play” to parents, guardians and educators, in order to illustrate how important play is for children’s healthy development.
Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.
Building 21st century skills through play
There is increasing evidence that in order to prepare children for school, there should be less focus on pre-literacy and pre-math skills, and more emphasis on the social-emotional, attentional and cognitive skills that support children to be “ready to learn” – able to pay attention, behave appropriately, and develop effective relationships. According to the report, “Play is fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success.” The authors also add the capacity for risk-taking, experimenting, and testing boundaries to the list of skills and competencies built through play.
The report notes that today’s knowledge economy, in contrast to the industrial economy, “demands more innovation and less imitation, more creativity and less conformity.” And it calls on the education system to keep up, saying that if students are to succeed in today’s world, teaching methods such as memorization and passive rote learning have to be replaced by methods that support creativity and innovation and things like the capacity to transfer knowledge acquired in one area and apply it to another.
Play is to the 21st century what work was to industrialization. It demonstrates a way of knowing, doing, and creating value. (Museum of Modern Art 2012)
Play’s impact on the brain
According to the authors, there is strong evidence that play has a lasting impact on brain structure and functioning. It may even have an impact on long-term memory.
Executive functioning, which is described as the process of how we learn over the content of what we learn, is a core benefit of play and can be characterized by 3 dimensions: cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory.
A roadmap for building play into learning
The report outlines a number of areas for change:
- parents and guardians need better information and support around the importance of play
- greater public awareness is needed about the impact of media and technology on children’s experience of healthy play
- to enhance the long-term skills built through play, teaching and education systems must focus more on building students’ active engagement, and less on their capacity to simply absorb content
- to ensure that children have safe, clean, accessible places to play, there needs to be cooperation between systems like public health, municipal parks and recreation, and education
- doctors need to take play seriously, and encourage parents to build time for play into every day.