“We don’t have to see it as a choice between play or academics, play should be academics for preschoolers,” said Alissa Mwenelupembe, the senior director for early learning program accreditation at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

But what does that look like? Experts and educators generally agree on a few main principles when it comes to quality play for young kids: It should be a defining feature of the day and not just a brief diversion, like recess; there should be some element of choice — allowing kids to pick an activity and decide how to pursue it; it should be enjoyable and spontaneous; and in most cases, a supportive adult should provide at least some guidance and help reinforce academic and social emotional concepts. 

Beyond those tenets, what learning through play looks like on the ground — or playground, as the case may be — can vary greatly based on a program’s approach or philosophy. Play in early ed settings is more deliberate and nuanced — not to mention important — than the casual observer realizes. 

 “When you’re actually really being intentional with how they’re going to play, they do pick up a lot more and they understand a lot more,” said DeLeon. 

A teacher accepts plastic food items from one of her students.
Shareece DeLeon, a teacher at Impact Public School’s Salish Sea Elementary, accepts plastic food items from one of her students during a 90-minute block of play time. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report )

At Impact Salish Sea Elementary, one of three elementary charter schools in the Seattle area run by Impact Public Schools, educators focus on “imaginary play,” like pretending to run a restaurant or hospital, as a tool to teach young children self-regulation and cognitive skills. The approach is partially inspired by Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who saw imaginative play as a critical activity to support a child’s development. This differs from “immature play,” where children “don’t interact with each other and flit from thing to thing,” said Deborah Leong, co-founder and president of Tools of the Mind, the organization behind the curriculum used by Impact and dozens of other school districts and charter schools nationwide.

Teachers act as “play mentors” to help children develop and create a scenario, build props, and plan out their play. Classrooms embrace themes — like grocery store or home — and transform their space accordingly. Children have around 90 minutes each day for this play time.

This daily experience ultimately supports the development of “mature” play, where children are able to stay in pretend roles for a longer period of time, Leong said. “It’s the foundation for being able to imagine a world that’s different from what you’re living in,” she said.

The front of a school building with bricks and windows. The school name, Impact, is written above the double door entrance.
Impact Salish Sea Elementary, in south Seattle, is one of three charter schools run by Impact Public Schools. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Just a few weeks into the school year, the students at Impact Salish Sea were still learning the routines of their transitional kindergarten classroom, a year meant to prepare 4- and 5-year-olds for kindergarten. Play period began one mid-October morning with students picking a colorful clothespin from a board and affixing it to their shirt. The different colors of the clothespins corresponded to various play centers in the classroom. As children fanned out across the room, the classroom’s two teachers circulated. They stopped to watch various students, asking questions about their play, and encouraging them to count as they used blocks to build rocket ships or problem solve when the water in the sink became too cold. When a young charge approached DeLeon after the doll she wanted was taken by another student, DeLeon encouraged her to go talk to her peer and try to work it out. 

While such classrooms can look different from traditional elementary classrooms, and even appear chaotic at times, students are indeed learning how to interact with their peers and solidifying early math, science and literacy skills. “It’s not just play for play’s sake,” said Lauren Ellis, senior director of early learning at Impact Public Schools, though free play is also important, she added. Students at Impact also receive nearly an hour of recess a day, play games throughout the day and have a block of free play near the end of the day. 

Having frequent opportunities to play is something experts with NAEYC look for when assessing the quality of preschools. Regardless of the school’s curriculum or approach, NAEYC evaluators want children to be engaged in play and have some choice about their activities for a “substantial” part of the day, said Mwenelupembe.

One sign of quality play is when children are interacting with materials and peers, she added. Teachers should be asking questions that “stretch” emerging knowledge, and helping children navigate conflicts. 

Two children play with blocks and other tools during a morning play session at Impact Salish Sea Elementary.
Students at Impact Salish Sea Elementary play during a long, morning play session. The school uses a curriculum by Tools of the Mind that emphasizes imaginative play. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Play can be seen as a spectrum, ranging from direct, teacher-led instruction on one end, to free play on the other, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. While there are benefits to other types of play, the sweet spot for classrooms is in the middle at “guided play,” she added, where children play with a learning goal in mind and educators provide gentle guidance. That does not, however, include activities that some teachers may view as play, she added, like making letters out of Play-Doh. “That is direct instruction in play clothes,” she said, since children are being told exactly what to do with their materials.

Yet some play advocates lean more toward a form of free play that includes no adult-directed learning goal or teacher direction. AnjiPlay, a philosophy that originated in the Zhejiang Province of China about 20 years ago and has pilot programs around the world, provides children with at least two hours of uninterrupted outdoor play each day using materials like ladders, barrels and climbing cubes. Children have additional play time inside, read daily and spend time reflecting on their play through drawings and discussion.

The goal, as stated on the organization’s website, is to enable “deep and uninterrupted engagement” in a chosen play activity. While teachers are on hand, they do not steer or guide students at all.  

“Children make the distinction between play that belongs to them, and play that is coming from somebody else,” said Jesse Coffino, CEO of Anji Education, Inc. and chair of the True Play Foundation. “I don’t see guided play as play,” he said. “There’s specific learning outcomes that an adult has decided are important.” 

This type of child-led, free play is beneficial and all too often lacking, said Doris Bergen, a distinguished professor emeritus at Miami University of Ohio’s Department of Educational Psychology whose research has focused on child development and play. Bergen finds it worrisome when “children have too much structured time when they’re young,” adding that they should be permitted to make up their own rules and pursue their own interests at least part of the time. “They need to have some control, and some time where they are deciding what to do … and where to be, and what to use.”  

Experts say providing ample time for play is even more important now than ever, helping to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on young children, many of whom missed out on opportunities to play and build relationships with their peers. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

The obstacles to introducing more play opportunities can be formidable: Rigorous academic concepts are sliding down to the preschool years as kids are prepped for more challenging early elementary grades. In addition, research shows teachers may not have support for play-based learning from some school principals who don’t understand that young children learn most readily through play, or teachers may get pushback from parents who fear children won’t be prepared for kindergarten. Play and free-choice time can be even more restricted in classrooms that serve high rates of low-income, Black or Hispanic children, research shows. 

Given the constraints many teachers are under when introducing or expanding play time, some experts try not to get consumed in debates over approach. Instead, they say, they advise educators to get going however they can. 

“Any amount of play someone brings, we should be celebrating it,” said Sally Haughey, a former early childhood educator who taught in public and private settings for nearly 20 years before founding an organization that trains educators in play-based learning. Teachers who want to include more play can start simply by adding some student-led play time in their day, she added. 

“Start with what’s freely chosen and just keep expanding it.” 

Even if teachers have a strict curriculum to teach, it’s possible to infuse more play, said Temple’s Hirsh-Pasek. “It’s redoing the mindset of how you teach the curriculum,” she added, like swapping out a worksheet about numbers with a physical activity where kids can jump, run and compare distances to learn about counting, adding and subtracting. More training and support could help. “It’s imperative that we start putting it in teacher preparation right now,” she said. 

Amber Unger, a pre-K teacher in Milwaukee who has been teaching for 14 years, encourages teachers to look at their schedules to find a few minutes a day to add or expand free-choice play. If teachers typically start the day with desk work, for example, she suggests swapping that out with play time, even just once a week to start. Unger’s efforts are supported by her district, which has embraced a play-based approach to pre-K, but she knows other teachers who don’t have that support. “We all have different situations,” she said. “You just need to do the best you can with the knowledge and experience you have.” 

A 4-year-old child washes dishes as part of a classroom activity.
Jordyn, 4, washes dishes during a unit about the home in one of Impact Salish Sea’s transitional kindergarten, or TK, class. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Unger, who also runs a website which helps teachers incorporate play-based learning strategies, slots a “play workshop” into her longest, uninterrupted block of time each day. During that time, children are free to play at 17 different centers around her classroom. Over the past few years, she has increased the amount of play in her room by looking for opportunities to make moments “playful” during the day: encouraging students to pretend to be butterflies while walking down the hallway or using playful activities to reinforce skills taught during brief periods of direct instruction, like making patterns out of shells and corks. “Play is the vehicle to make that happen,” she said. “I 100 percent, confidently believe that play allows our students to practice what we are teaching them.” 

Still, Unger said it’s taken years of research and practice to nurture her approach to play-based learning, and she is still learning and finding what works best for her students. “I definitely see more opportunities for play than what I did five years ago,” she said. “I was so hung up on doing play ‘right’ … There isn’t a right way and a wrong way to do play.”

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