How Play Prepares Kids for School

Play isn't just fun – it's the intrinsic way kids learn. (photo by James B. Hale/ The Daily Times)

Play isn’t just fun – it’s the intrinsic way kids learn. (James B. Hale/ The Daily Times)

As summer vacation breathes its last breath, and kids slowly migrate from rivers, beaches and backyards to classrooms, bleachers and schoolyards, the mind of the parent naturally wanders to the question: Are my kids ready for school?

Being “ready for school” can mean the obvious, armed with notebooks, pencils and binders for every class, but it can also mean being armed with the skills necessary, both academic and social, to navigate the choppy waters of education. Fortunately there’s an easy way to make sure your kids are primed and proper for the first bell of the year, and it’s one I think they’re going to like – play.

Our culture is full of portrayals of play as something disruptive. Think of the stereotypical stern nun or responsibility-minded parents. Kids are often expected to sit still and listen in order to learn what they’re told, any semblance of “horseplay” swiftly nipped in the bud. In the summer, kids are finally set free from the confines of school and are allowed to play to their hearts’ content, until the summer winds back down, forcing them to transition back into the mindset to learn – to be ready for school’s rigorous academic demands.

But does it really have to be this way? Do play and education have to be so very different? Does being ready for school have to involve some great shift of mindset away from summer play? The National Association of School Psychologists doesn’t think so. “This common philosophy of ‘ready for school’ places an undue burden on children by expecting them to meet the expectations of school,” researchers from the organization wrote in a 2004 paper on school readiness. “Stated in simple terms, school readiness means that a child is ready to enter a social environment that is primarily focused on education.”

Too often parents have kept their focus on educating their kids before school, inundating them with knowledge to be a step ahead of the class. That kind of skill-based learning can be instructional, and ultimately helpful for some, but by employing play-based learning parents can help equip their kids to better learn once inside the educational environment.

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What does play-based learning look like anyway? Look at a lesson about bird nests, for example. In a traditional, skill-based environment, kids might follow up the lesson by filling out worksheets, answering questions and coloring in pictures. In a play-based environment, kids might instead collaborate to build mock-nests themselves, incorporating role play and storytelling into the lesson.

According to Erika and Nicholas Kristakis, husband-and-wife educational researchers, that difference is key. “Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment,” they wrote in a 2010 CNN article on play. “By allowing children to imagine walking in another person’s shoes, imaginative play also seeds the development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional success.”

The Christakises stress emotional intelligence alongside academic preparation. You can fill a school with straight-A students, but what good are grades if they can’t connect and collaborate together to discover more about their world?

The great thing about play is that it naturally encourages skills crucial to a productive educational environment. Take a board game, for example. To play, kids must be able to listen, follow instructions and take turns. Adapting to the confines of the game encourages problem-solving and strategy. Whether they’re playing a game, doing arts and crafts or spending time outside, play can set kids up with the tools necessary to learn well within the classroom.

This isn’t just opinion. Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center have found direct positive effects of play on education. Dorothy Singer, a senior research associate at the center, insightfully examines the issue in her book Make- Believe: Games and Activities to Foster Imaginative Play in Children Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age. “Is children’s obvious enjoyment of play a pleasant pastime with little significance for effective cognitive and social skill development? Or, can play be viewed as an intrinsic learning process, actually a critical method for learning?” she asks.

In other words, is play simply the natural way kids learn? By denying them play are we denying them the ability to best comprehend the world? As you get your kids ready for school this year, think about putting down the flash cards for some make believe. Don’t send them to class with knowledge, send them with tools to learn.

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