elevating child care

Don’t Let Your Preschoolers Forget How To Play

As hard as it is to believe, there are children as young as 4 or 5 already showing signs of stress and burn-out because parents and teachers are misinformed about their educational needs.  Some have even been mis-educated to the extent that they’ve forgotten how to play.
I had a spontaneous meeting with my children’s former preschool director recently, and boy, did she need to vent.  She shared with me that another preschool in our neighborhood suddenly closed late last summer, and several desperate parents begged to enroll in her school at the last minute. 

But difficulties arose because these families were switching from a school with a much different philosophy, one focused on teacher directed structured learning and academics rather than free play.  So transitioning these children into the relaxed, child-centered, developmentally appropriate school my children once attended was a major adjustment for the teachers and parents…and especially the children.

If these new students were willing test subjects rather than innocent children, the staff might have appreciated this experience as a valuable training session, because they vividly illustrated the unfortunate result of what not to do.

The children’s attempts at play with peers were rigid, tense, directive and one-note: “Okay, I’m the big sister and you’re the mommy and you’re the little brother and you’re the friend. The little brother and I are going to run away.”

“Running away” was apparently the predominant (and just about only) thing they wanted to pretend. They also seemed fixated on being teenagers: “Let’s pretend we’re teenagers and run away”. It was as if they wanted to escape from childhood, which is disturbing, because I think most of us recall childhood as a free and happy time to escape to.

According to the director, most of these children’s parents have “bought in” to the idea that they need to sign their children up (since before they were 2 years old) to every class available: gymnastics, art, swimming, dance, piano, violin, etc.  At least 5 days per week these children have not only preschool (and, previously,  an overly structured one), but also “enrichment” classes.

As we were talking, a toddler and his family appeared and descended some steps nearby. This was an obvious challenge for the toddler, who held his father’s hand.  “This boy is taking violin lessons”, the director said quietly to me. “He’s good, but…”

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right”.

I’d want to run away, too.

This preschool includes a child-centered chapel service once each week. Usually, the preschoolers jump out of the pews and dance and sing along to the music. The new group of children sat quietly. They had been taught well. Too well.

Yes, it’s true that Kindergarten has transformed into First Grade. Yes, children will need to learn academics, listen and sit still. But that certainly doesn’t mean that these lessons should be straight-jacketed onto them in the toddler and preschool years.  In fact, the funneling down of structured learning is all the more reason to let children play while they can.  We must fiercely protect this precious, ever shrinking window of time for our children.

Play is enough. Play is enough. Play is enough. This should be our educational mantra for the first 5 years.

The director said that towards the very end of the school year, the new group of children finally began to let go a little and figure out how to play with their friends on the playground.  But several of the new families won’t be returning. The director hadn’t satisfactorily addressed their concerns that their children weren’t “learning anything”.


I share more about early childhood play and learning in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)

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93 Responses to “Don’t Let Your Preschoolers Forget How To Play”

  1. avatar Grandma says:

    Janet, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Children should be allowed to be children and your 5 Year rule seems good to me. I really believe the reason so many teenagers try to break the rules is because they never had time to enjoy being a child.

  2. avatar Eden says:

    Thank you for the reminder that just b/c I don’t have my children (5yo girl/boy twins) signed up for “extracurricular” activities doesn’t make me a “bad mom.” In fact, it is still allowing them the freedom they have had in previous years at school (Waldorf early education), even though they are now transitioning into the public school system. Even in kindergarten, their time is programmed enough. The least I can do is give them unstructured time outside of school.

    • avatar janet says:

      YES! You are definitely not a “bad mom”. Quite the opposite!!!

  3. avatar Mihaela says:

    You’re absolutely right! I have been trying to explain to my hubby (who happens to be elementary teacher!) that our daughters should remain children and PLAY as long as possible! They got the whole life to be (and act like) ADULTS! I have a site whose moto is: “Playing is serious bussines!” And I mean it! :D

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