The True Value of Play in Child Development

Ever since I read Nurture Shock and the successful results of the Tools of the Mind program in schools, I’ve been an advocate for Vygotsky’s principles on the importance of imaginary play. At home, I encourage Gavin’s active imagination and even participate in his pretend picnics and camping trips. A recent article from the Chronicle Review, however, discusses the division between the experts on the importance of play:

Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, considers the move away from play to be a crisis, even comparing it to global warming, in the sense that it may take years for the consequences to be felt. When it comes to the value of play, she declares: “The science is clear.”

But how clear is it? Even researchers who’ve devoted much of their careers to studying play question the more inflated claims of its importance. Within the world of those who take play seriously, there are multiple camps, each with its own dearly held tenets. There are the Free Players, who argue that play is a human right and that adults should more or less leave kids alone. There are the Play Skeptics, who see play as useful for blowing off steam but are dubious about its cognitive upside. And there are Play Moderates, who advocate a mix of free play, adult-guided play, and traditional classroom instruction.

What are the benefits of play? According to Deborah Leong, author of Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education:

when young children are pretending, they often use bigger words than they normally would and fully inhabit their roles, like mini Method actors. If they’re playing doctor, for instance, they might say “injection” or “thermometer.” Recently she watched a group of preschoolers pretending to work at a well-known chain hardware store. “Welcome to Home Depot,” a 4-year-old said. “You can do it, we can help.” Meanwhile another group of children, who were pretending to be airport screeners, informed a would-be passenger that a bottle she was carrying was larger than the permitted three ounces.

Additionally:

Pretend play isn’t just about vocabulary. A 2007 study published in Science looked at how 4- and 5-year-olds who were enrolled in a school that used the play-based, Vygotsky-inspired Tools of the Mind curriculum measured up to children in a more typical preschool. The students in the play-based school scored better on cognitive flexibility, self-control, and working memory—attributes of “executive function,” which has been consistently linked to academic achievement. The results were so convincing that the experiment was halted earlier than planned so that children in the typical preschool could be switched to the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The authors conclude: “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential.”

One the flip side of the coin, there’s Peter K. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of London:

“I looked at the textbooks of play” from Piaget forward, he says. “They said play is essential for development, that it enhanced this and this, and that and that, but they don’t cite any evidence.” So he decided to take a closer look. In the late 1980s, he picked a couple of studies that claimed to demonstrate the benefits of play. In one study, researchers had found that playing with small objects helped young children learn how to solve problems. Another showed that play made kids more creative. Smith replicated both using a double-blind procedure to eliminate any potential research bias.

His findings showed no difference in creativity or problem-solving ability between the kids who played and those who didn’t. It was a setback for play advocates and made researchers wonder whether the field was based on science or sentimental hype.

And researcher Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia:

“I think if you look hard at all the studies people cite as showing that play helps development, they are either correlation studies”—in other words, they don’t prove that play actually causes cognitive gains—”or they have problems,” she says.

Not that Lillard, or Smith, for that matter, is antiplay. Lillard is the author of the best-selling book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and has written about the possible links between pretend play and social cognition. She does, however, believe that the field is in need of newer and better research. “My own view is that I would like for us to have firmer footing to stand on,” she says.

Which brings us back to “everything in moderation”. Play is still good for the children, but let’s see some more defining research linking the true benefits of play. In the meantime, I think we should still make time for unstructured freeplay and directed play time. Speaking of which… time for another camp-out!

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