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”.

 

 

(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

I LOVE your comments and questions. Please add them here...

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

  1. avatar kara says:

    it sounds like the Montessori philosophy is something you are against. is this true? While it does have some structure, it also lets kids have the ability to choose what activity they want to explore in the classroom and there is quite a bit of play time on the yard too. I had my child in a ‘play centered’ daycare prior and frankly I thought it was a bit too loose and sometimes borderline unsafe and I was concerned with the disregard and lack of enough appropriate boundaries in place (ie a child would be jumping on a table with no consequence and allowed to be out right rude and mean to another with a passive adult response which left the aggressor able continue with no consequence) and there was utter lack of boundaries. I think every child learns/explores their environments differently and I guess I get tired of hearing the negativity out there about the differing philosophies. I’m a social worker by education and sometimes struggle with decisions that are made as a parent, but it gets tiring hearing the continued put downs of differing philosophies other schools might have. Thanks for hearing my concerns.

    • avatar janet says:

      Kara, no, I am not against the Montessori philosophy and I’m sorry you got that impression. I think if there is a good balance of free play time, a little structure is fine, but I don’t believe it is necessary. Free, child-directed play does NOT mean children running loose and unsafe without behavior boundaries. I’m a strong believer in behavior boundaries and my many posts on the subject should have made that clear. BUT, I believe that play and learning should belong to children for their first 5 years. I don’t see this as negativity… I see this as trusting children, which I believe is very positive.

    • avatar Judith says:

      Balance, balance, balance ,balance, balance…a child that knows rules, listening and good manners can also play imaginatively and safely..in my classroom we will do something structured then have a freetime for allowing those brain cells to relax…this follows the natural flow of an adult life (hopefully!)i.e. grownups who go to work then relaxing at home…no violin lessons until at least 7 please lots of other lovely musical fun stuff first…

      • avatar janet says:

        Thanks, Judith, but preschoolers are not adults… They know better than we do what they need to do to stay balanced. They need to be trusted. What do you believe is the point of doing something “stuctured”?

        • avatar JulieK says:

          I’m guessing (who knows) by structured perhaps she means something like a read-aloud for the kids and then maybe freeplay time afterwards? So structured as in everyone gathers for a story and then hopefully that story might inspire their play later?
          Or like in our Music Together class – there’s structure when the teacher models singing a new song and then invites the kids to join in, but the kids are free to sing or not, to get up or not, etc… so it’s structure for the flow of classtime but not limiting the kids movement or involvement???

      • avatar Shawn says:

        Judith, I think you may have it backwards. Children’s brains are MOST active when allowed to create their own meaning through self-selected, hands-on activities (play)! Perhaps it’s their bodies and emotions (anxiety) that you see “relaxing” when you move from a structured activity to “freetime”…?

  2. avatar Sarah says:

    I am a kindergarten teacher. A bad program is bad and doesnt matter what name it has! There are plenty of bad montessori, play based, PYP ETC etc out there. Janet i agree with u. I re-teach burnt out children all the time.

  3. Such an important message. I found it such a struggle to find playmates for my daughter when she was a toddler bc so many other families had full schedules with organized classes for their tots, that they didn’t have much time available for play dates. And we would go to the park hoping to find other kids to play with, and there would be no kids there either probably bc they were at classes too.

    • avatar Eleanor says:

      Rebekah, that is so sad, I have an image of a poor lonely girl on a swing all alone:-(

    • avatar Lois says:

      I still find it a struggle to find someone for my 5 year old granddaughter to play with. Everyone is booked after kindergarten. When we do have playdates, play is very hard to do!

  4. avatar Eleanor says:

    In New Zealand we have seen the rise of early childhood education company called ‘Little School’. It has won business awards and is expanding in to China. They have set English time, maths time etc. As a primary teacher I can say that many of the children (not all) that go through this system lack imagination and joy of discovery. It is very sad that some parents believe their children will ‘get ahead’ by sending them to these types of places..

  5. avatar Elanne Kresser says:

    Wow – I feel so sad when I read this. So deeply sad for these children. I wonder too what kind of a society these children will be a part of when they are adults. This denial of childhood is an irresponsible experiment that could have far-reaching consequences. All of the great artists, thinkers, scientists, atheletes, musicians and even business people know how to play.

  6. avatar Emily M says:

    I agree, Janet. Play is so very important in those beginning years. I observe children all the time who don’t seem to know how to really play. I was just at the park earlier today letting my 2-year-old play when I saw a group of 3-year-old girls working out, rather than playing. It was an unnerving sight. I blogged about it, if you’re interested.

    http://bonafidebites.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/when-the-queen-bees-invade-the-hive/

    I live in an area where preschool typically starts at 2. As far as I know, we are one of the very few families who will not be putting our 2-year-old in some sort of preschool this fall. It seems to me that once you start on that “school” track, you are stuck there until after college. I think having a playful childhood is so much more important than structured academics. I don’t see why people can’t see that children learn through play.

    • avatar Sarah says:

      EMily, I am an early years educator with a firm belief that children learn through play. I know that one of the reason people dont “see that children learn through play” is because the learning is not as “visible” as a test score, or a work sheet or a “product” that supposedly ticks boxes. Many educators who work in a child centred approach that allows children to play, are not provided with the resources and training to communicate the learning in the play. I work VERY hard every day to document the learning in my classroom. I still get parents asking for “results”.

      • avatar Emily M says:

        Sarah, that must be frustrating. I know it’s frustrating trying to defend my decision not to send my boy to preschool yet.

        Keep up the good work!

  7. avatar Fran says:

    I love this, Janet! I don’t remember being “taught” anything before I started school. My sisters and I just played together, watched a little good TV (Sesame Street and Electric Company) and played board and card games with our parents. Of course we learned quite a bit, it just happened naturally and in an unstructured way. Kindergarten back then was still a lot of playtime and only half day (when did that end?). Despite my horrible, unstructured early education, I went on to excel in school. I guess it wasn’t so bad after all! :-)

    • Well said Fran. I too wasn’t taught a whole lot before I went to kindergarten. Today, children are being taught in preschool what I learned in kindergarten. For example, children are learning how to read in kindergarten, where I was learning colors, numbers, etc. I do not believe their minds are completely ready for it. I believe children need to be pushed but when is it too much.

      • avatar Kirsty says:

        This is so true. My son is 5.5 yrs old and should be entering kindergarten this fall. The only trouble is – I can’t find a kindergarten that is similar to the one I experienced. I’m not happy with any of the options available to me. My son will either go the waldorf route or homeschool I guess. If I could find a reggio school we’d do that.

    • Exactly what you said! My nephew was actually not allowed to begin school at a private school because he couldn’t hold a pencil properly yet. Imagine!
      I was 5 when I went to kindergarden and had no official “teaching” either. Our homes sound similar!

    • avatar me says:

      “Kindergarten back then was still a lot of playtime and only half day (when did that end?). ”

      –> the half day ended because now in a lot of cases both parents have to work?

    • avatar Mandy Cunis says:

      I was pretty much raised the same as you by the sounds of it, Fran, no preschool and only my brothers to play with, sometimes cousins and local friends. I played lots of doll games and tea parties. I don’t remember my folks being particularly interested in what I was up to, sadly, but perhaps I just don’t remember. I had a big back yard and spend lots of time outside. I remember my new entrants class with fondness, I started when I was 4 with mostly free play and a happy time but it all changed after that. My happy pre 5 days were over and I became institutionalised into the structure of an educational system that didn’t work for me.
      However, I did get to university and studied to be a teacher so that I could try to make it better for my children…I am still on that mission.

  8. avatar coral lester says:

    I am an early childhood teacher in NZ and am an advocate for children to have large periods of uuninterrupted play to enrich their learning and understanding of the world around them. Surprisingly so many teachers are hooked on 3 mat times a day and having 4 year old groups that give only insructional lessons on writing, and numeracy. NZ has a good reputaton in providing quality early childcare education, where most teachers are either trained or in training. Sadly, many not all still live in the prehistoric days where children have to participate in long boring matimes and “have to learn to listen” and “have to learn to sit still”. Anybody, qualified or not, who does their research properly, knows that young children are not designed to sit still for long periods. Yet teachers still insist on instructive learning and power struggles with children. Freedom to play, freedom of choice, and freedom of movement will develop the unique potential of each child. When will teachers see this and develop a practice that reflects how children learn?

    • avatar Sarah says:

      If this was fb i would like ur comment! Lol

      • avatar janet says:

        Me, too! I keep wanting to like all of these comments. (FB has ruined me!)

        Thanks everyone for your corroboration… We need to spread the word!

  9. avatar Mama Mo says:

    Whew. This post touches on so many of the issues I’m mulling lately. I was an elementary school teacher before I had my children. I taught first grade in Las Vegas, where many of my students hadn’t had formal schooling at all before. During “centers” time I would often let the children play. I was supposed to have an academic purpose behind every center, but those kids just needed to play. I didn’t know enough about child development to be able to articulate how much they truly needed the playtime, but I just knew they did.

    Now I teach a 4/5 mornings-only class at a play-based center. My mom is the director, my boys were in the toddler class, and we’ll be going next school year. I have learned SO MUCH about the importance of play. I’ve handed out articles and studies on the benefits of play, and I’ve answered countless questions about the validity of our approach.

    It’s a strange feeling hearing parents tell me “You know, he actually learned a lot this year even though he was only playing!” I’m glad they recognize their child’s growth, but it’s not “only” playing!

    After such a radical educational awakening, I dread having to send my boys to kindergarten.

  10. avatar Meagan says:

    My son won’t be going to a play based preschool… for one thing I haven’t seen any in my area. We’ve still got some time, but we’ve decided on a nearby Montessori.

    I like many things about Montessori. I like that it’s child led, and that children are taught to, and trusted to, be responsible for many aspects of self care at a young age. I like that children of different ages are able to interact and learn from each other. I like that they allow children to learn according to their individual development. I like that they go outside everyday, and “outside” means trees and grass rather than some plastic toys on concrete.

    But I do have some concerns about play. There doesn’t seem to be much room for imaginitive play or dramatic play or pure silliness. It doesn’t seem oppressive, bu the kids are really on task and focused. I think this is a good thing (not to mention pretty impressive) but I do want to allow my son the opportunity to have open, cooperative play with other children, and I don’t know that this will happen at th Montessori.

    Do you have any suggestions fo finding space for this outside of school? My son is a year old, and right now he has ample opportunity to play unguided and uninterrupted at home, but there are no other small children in our neighborhood and I’m just not sure where I can bring him for the social free play. I would love for it to be spontaneous, but we aren’t in a place where that can happen.

    • avatar janet says:

      Meagan, I suggest relaxing and not worrying about his social play… An occasional one-on-one play date is really enough, in my opinion. Once your boy starts school, I would just let him kick back while he’s at home. He will use this wonderful play you are encouraging at home to work out issues he has dealt with at school. School is more than enough social time for toddlers and preschoolers.

    • avatar MamaRama says:

      My son is just finishing his first year of Montessori (he’s 3). I was a little worried about the lack of time for imaginative play as well – he goes 5 mornings a week and it’s a ‘purist’ program with no extra music or art. I don’t know exactly how it’s related, but in the past 9 months my son’s imagination has EXPLODED and he spends a huge amount of time doing dramatic play. (For example, when we went to the park yesterday to kick a ball around, the ball became a penguin egg that we took turns protecting while the other caught fish to feed the egg-guarder.)
      Also, many of the moms hang around after morning pick-up so that the kids can all socialize and run around and get silly. And these kids DO get silly! And of course, there are plenty of playdates.

      So I wouldn’t worry about Montessori crowding out play, or dampening imagination. I think TV has a far worse effect on play because it discourages self-direction and can limit imagination.

      • avatar MamaPostal says:

        Thanks for posting this comment! My son will be enrolled in a Montessori Preschool this January, and I had the same concern about the imaginative play. It’s only 2 3.5 mornings a week, but I want every moment to count. I’m glad to hear your experience!!

    • avatar Heather Day says:

      Hi Megan,

      I’m not sure if there is anything like this near you, but there is a great group on Meetup.com in my area for outdoor / nature based play dates. It has been a great way for me to meet other parents who believe in the importance of letting the kids get outdoors for some play in the dirt time :) You might see if there is one in your area, or start one your self!

  11. avatar lilly says:

    thank you so much for your post today, Janet. It’s imperative that we be reminded and remind ourselves of this message of play for young children. In a culture that nearly insists on faster is better, those who know the value of play and quality over quantity can come together for this kind of support and clarity. It’s taken me over a year to find the peace of knowing this wisdom and giving that gift to my son.

    Respectfully,

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Lily. I can say with 100% conviction that play is enough to prepare children for ANY Kindergarten environment. Yes, it certainly is a gift these days, but from my experience with 3 kids, it really does keep on giving.

  12. avatar Erin says:

    Thank you for this post! Many kids my daughters age (2.5) are starting pre-school soon and we will not have any of them around for play dates anymore. How important is it for them to play with other children in these early years as opposed to every once in a while and mostly at home alone or with me? Is it more important for them to play at home or go to a pre-school where they can get more social time in (along with the not-so-great structured time?) Thank you!! :)

    • avatar janet says:

      @Erin, I think group play can be highly educational for 3-5 year olds, but it’s certainly not necessary…especially on a daily basis. Playing at home and a once-in-awhile play date is just fine, too, in my opinion.

  13. avatar Janice StClair, Career Nanny says:

    I’d like to add that even child-directed play I’ve encountered while babysitting is becoming alarmingly less involved in discovery and mastery of the child’s body and the physical world (or, for older kids, imagination), and more about pushing buttons to make electronic music, lights, voices, and screen action take place, and re-enacting scenes from favorite movies or tv shows. A beloved three-year-old given a snow globe recently turned it over and asked “How do you turn it on?” This same child had wanted a tea set for her birthday. With great excitement, her mother gave her one with cups, saucers, and a teapot with no openings, that could not hold or pour water, because it held electronics for singing and playing music when tipped.

    And don’t even get me started on V-Tek!

    When having the “play” conversation with parents, or even at a separate time, I hope nannies and other child advocates will also have the “no screen time under age 2, and limited thereafter” conversation, and the “open-ended toys that encourage discovery and imagination and eye-hand coordination” conversation, too.

  14. avatar Stacy says:

    Is it really important for kids under 3 to be around other children all the time? I hear this a lot: “we put our child in daycare for two days a week so they could learn to be around kids.”
    I don’t think kids need lots of other kids around until they are of preschool age – 3-4 and then it’s preschool for only 2-3 days a week. It worked well for my kids. We didn’t do a lot of playdates until they were older and it seamed to have worked out great. They learned to play by themselves, developed a great imagination and stayed innocent for as long as possible. They are transitioning well into preschool and kindergarden.
    I think the pretending to run away thing comes from TV or certain books. That seams like a learned play idea.

    • i was wondering the same thing! i have no urge to put my child in preschool earlier than 4, if at all. wondering if this is unwise of me? not sure- i hear conflicting arguments and they both sound reasonable. thoughts?

      • avatar Emily M says:

        I only have a 2-year-old, so I’m not speaking from experience, but it seems to me that it depends on the kind of life the child has at home. If he is exposed to things outside the home, and has play dates, I don’t see any reason that he/she needs to be put in nursery school (preschool or daycare) for social purposes. Plus, like Stacy said, I think it is good for kids to learn to entertain themselves.

  15. avatar Liz Hagerman says:

    I think the point here is PLAY. Play is really important– it is deep. It is the root of creativity and happens in the ‘transitional space’ (Winnicott). Play throughout childhood is under siege with the attack advancing into the formerly protected, magical time of early childhood. Alliance For Childhood is a good resource if you’re up for standing guard at the gate of early childhood.

    http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/

  16. Wow Janet,
    Way to start a conversation.
    I agree as well as disagree with many of your readers….from a teachers perspective we know exactly why standards are being pushed down from school onto younger children and preschool teachers.
    There are some classes in Kindergarten where the teachers are asked to move mountains, and I feel for them. My own grand kids. Go to a
    Preschool with some structure, two days a week, three days a week they are with me, and we play…..with lots of “learning” thrown in, without too much structure. My grandson is going to a charter kindergarten in two months. I have been doing @ 1/2 hr of readiness activities with him all of his 4 yr old year.
    Then play ” Where’s My Water?” or similar game, together for fun, when the little ones go to nap earlier. Who knew learning physics could be so fun? If you don’t believe me try that app

  17. avatar Tatyana says:

    This amazing article also reminded me of something I read earlier this year. http://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/02/20/the-boy-with-no-toys/

  18. avatar sara says:

    love this.
    i started a really small music class with dylan when he was a baby. it was one morning a week and felt like “something fun for us to do.” and it was… for a while.

    then suddenly he went from seemingly enjoying it to being clear about the fact that he no longer did so we stopped and never returned.

    even though it was “loose” and very casual, it still felt a little too structured for me: we sing this song, play with these things, put them away, pull these things out, sing that song etc etc.
    so i found it pretty interesting that he decided – on his own – that he wasn’t into it. especially because i’d decided – on my own – to start! it felt good to listen to him and follow his lead even though all the other moms and their babes continued session after session.

    i’ve met lots of moms – at the park etc – who have said that they like to have lots of structured classes/activities to fill up their days and weeks.

    i couldn’t feel more differently! i LOVE this time where we have an open schedule and are free to discover ourselves and our interests together! i have no problem filling our time with playdates and fun outings that we often invent spontaneously! i love that it’s “us-led” and not some program that we have to adhere to… it just feels right.

    and i feel like that’s really led to dylan being able to get really deep in imaginative play by himself – and with me. he’s used to lots of open-ended time to play and just be.

    and i also believe wholeheartedly that all children will find their way the activities that they want to do *by themselves*. someone might argue that a toddler or preschooler would never know what they want unless we show them – but that’s kinda more to my point: they’ll know when they’re old enough to know! does that make sense?!

    i mean, i learned that from the music class. i imposed that upon him and, when he was able to, he let me know he didn’t like it. and, to be honest, same with swim lessons. we went because it was what “everyone” was doing and he hated it. thankfully i listened to him and we stopped as soon as we started but it all just kinda reconfirmed that if we wait for them to be ready for these structured activities, they’ll get the most out of them anyways! while they’re toddlers and preschoolers their job truly is to play and explore their world and themselves – not to have a weekly schedule to keep up on!

    always love your posts… xx

  19. avatar Lucy says:

    I have to say I think it is important to also listen to your child’s needs. I went to a Waldorf school for my whole education up until college. Waldorf focuses on playing for the first years of education, children have two years of kindergarten in which they mostly play, draw and sing. This is wonderful and I think it is very helpful for a lot of children. I was an introverted child and I didn’t like playing with the other kids all the time and would always beg my mother to stay home. Finally she hired a montessori teacher to home school me. I learned to read and write some words, I learned about geology, plants, etc. and I loved it. I could not have been happier. Of course eventually I got bored and lonely and asked my mom to put me back in school, which she did. I think that year and a half of my life was what I wanted as a child and it also helped me get into reading much earlier than my Waldorf class peers, which, as an introvert, was very important.

    • avatar Ruth says:

      Lucy – thank you for sharing this. I think what you said is so important. Janet’s article is timely for me and has given me a new perspective and a reminder of the importance of play at a time when I am learning through trial and error what our 3 year old son really needs.

      However, the most important thing for me has always been to be guided by him in terms of what is best for him and to make sure that I also stay true to myself and my needs as well.

      How nice that your parents were able to (eventually) honor your uniqueness and find the solution that was right for you.

  20. Yes yes yes! I’ve been searching for a part-time preschool for my son and I can’t tell you what a dismal search it’s been. I live in a community of “Tiger Moms” so the preschools cater to what the parents want: sit, sit, sit still and learn, learn, learn (if you can call it that). It’s almost like these people don’t have faith that their kids will ever learn to listen or be interested in ABCs and 123s. So sad. It’s been pretty shocking to witness this when MY expectation of “preschool” is painting, singing, running around, and silliness. Because you’re right, it’s the play that makes us cherish childhood.

  21. avatar Tanya says:

    I love all these comments and agree about the importance of independent play for children! I would love to hear what people think about Montessori preschool and kindergarden, and especially from a RIE perspective. There are many montessori and “montessori-based” centers in my area and they are very popular, and very different from each other. My sense is that montessori has a VERY structured, child-led approach, and I sometimes wonder is it too structured? Perhaps the answer is yes for some children and no for other children. What “type” of children do you think would benefit from this approach? Thank you…again!!!

  22. avatar Teacher Tom says:

    I know it shouldn’t, but it shocks me that play in early childhood must be defended. It should be a simple given that play is how children learn best up through at least 5. Of course, I’m convinced that play is the way humans learn best throughout their lives, but I understand why that point of view must be defended . . . but for preschoolers?

    Janet, thank you for being such a strong advocate for real early childhood education.

  23. There are extremes to everything – play vs academia. Some parents will take the play argument as justification for ignoring their kids all day.

    Play is good, but completely unstructured time can drive a parent insane! Many of us don’t have nice safe play areas where we can just let the kiddos loose all day. We need some type of structure to keep chaos contained.

    I’ve done “alphabet school” with my daughter since she was 15 months, and I don’t regret it. I wrote this just after she turned 2: If I don’t have a plan of attack, I spend my day following the fudgsicle drop trail with a damp cloth and windex while Miss Esmé paints herself with watercolors and spatters toilet water around the bathroom with a duster, and then proceeds to cook herself an egg while feeding the cat and wiping her hands on fudgsicle-stained pants, which she then takes off and runs around naked with her step ladder, positioning it in front of the kitchen sink and proceeding to dump all the water collected in the dishes collected in the sink onto the floor, which mixes nicely with her watercolored feet to create footprints throughout the house where the fudgsicle drop trail has just been wiped up.

    • avatar janet says:

      Mozi, with all respect, I think you are misinterpreting “free, self-directed play” as having no boundaries. No wonder allowing your child to follow her inner-direction feels chaotic and makes you crazy. Children DO need safe areas to play in, so that they feel safe enough to be focused and productive without driving parents crazy. This is easier to set up than you might think…you don’t need a huge space.

      It is fine for children hear, “I want you to sit here with me while you eat the popsicle. I won’t let you walk around with food. Those toys stay in your play room, etc.” In fact, these limits make children feel very secure and loved. Once we’ve established these kinds of boundaries, we can enjoy their play plans rather than needing to make our own “plan of attack”.

  24. avatar Vj says:

    Janet,
    Excellent post. Angie is turning 2.5 and does she play!
    Everything becomes something, a wooden block becomes a gate, an empty cardboard box becomes a truck. All we did was to switch the tv off(she has seen like 20 minutes of tv till now) and let her loose with some non sound making, non glowing, open ended toys.
    This post should be made mandatory reading for all parents who fret about thier kids getting into Harvard or where ever.
    You can read more about Play in this super book
    Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
    God bless you Janet and may you continue to inspire more parents to let their kids play.

  25. avatar Ros says:

    I couldn’t agree more. As an early childhood teacher, this move towards having little children sitting behind desks and “working” breaks my heart. They’re only little for so long. Let them enjoy the wonderment and awe of early childhood before it is taught out of them.

  26. avatar Fleur says:

    This post makes me thank full for NZ Playcentre where I and my daughter go where Play is paramount to the philosophy of the centre.
    Watching my toddler develop through her own initiated play gives me great delight as her Mum and watching her ‘make friends’ warms my heart.
    I Love that our way of ECE allows children to be their own authentic selves without the need to perform or be tested.

  27. avatar Gerilyn says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your play based learning approach!

  28. avatar Glory says:

    Hi Janet,

    I’m wondering about your views on swimming lessons for a preschool-aged child? My daughter is 4 and currently takes swimming lessons once per week. She has not attended preschool yet but will be going to a play-based school 3 mornings per week this fall. I put her in the swim class because I believe this is an important life skill for any age. Other than that she has no other obligations.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Glory! I think age 3 or 4 is perfect for swim lessons, because at that age children are capable of receiving and following instruction. This should be an activity the child enjoys, in my opinion, which usually means finding a gentle, respectful, responsive teacher.

  29. avatar Missy K says:

    This is a GREAT article. I am wondering if, especially this part, can apply to older children as well: “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.”

    My third grader is in public school, and is generally cheerful about school and is an eager student. However, he struggled with bouts of anxiety this year over attending an afterschool swim class (though he loves to swim) and participating in an extra-long field trip.

    When asked about his upset, his response was that after the long school day, he was ready to be at home with his family, without the additional time spent doing other things. That is reason enough, but I wonder if the extended expectations were also part of the issue.

    We do very few extracurricular activities though our boys are in elementary school now, simply because we’ve “Done the math” on how little free play time and down time their school schedule alone leaves. But your article, though about younger kids, helps me think this through in a deeper way. Thank you.

    • avatar janet says:

      Missy, you are so welcome. I think your insights are right on. One of the reasons your boy wants to have downtime with his family after school is that after a long day, swimming is yet another class, no matter how much he enjoys it. My philosophy regarding after school activities has always been…only if they request it and continue to request it. School (including homework, etc.) is a big commitment that is not always their choice. I believe that after school (and summer) should always be their choice. I believe that summer should be a time when my children’s brains “turn to jelly”, if that is what they wish. But I know that this is a controversial opinion.

  30. avatar Kathleen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. My 2-year-old isn’t enrolled in anything this summer – we have a few family trips and spend a lot of time at my parents’ lake house. That’s it, and we’ve gotten more than a few derogatory questions and comments about it. Some of his friends are enrolled in 4-5 activities.

    • avatar janet says:

      The derogatory comments sound absolutely crazy to me, Kathleen, and I love and support what you are doing!

  31. avatar Mary says:

    My husband and I are both art teachers. We live in one of the most test-score-driven areas in the country–Long Island, New York. We have a 3-year old daughter. I am worried about Kindergarten. There is so much pressure put on kids on Long Island! How do I protect her? They have HOMEWORK in kindergarten! One of my friends sent her child to a preschool with homework! We spend our summers in Maine on my family’s farm, so she gets her fill of making mud pies and “connecting” with nature, but will that be enough to counter the unavoidable stress of the public schools down in NY? I am in the minority when it comes to my beliefs about play-centered school experiences. When I talk about this to other parents, they look at me like I’m crazy. Do I just make sure that my daughter has a very calm, simple time when she is at home? Basically recovery from school? I’m not sure what else to do. I know that kids can adapt, but still…

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Mary! “will that be enough to counter the unavoidable stress of the public schools down in NY?” I have found the answer to be YES. This foundation of learning that you are giving your daughter, especially if it includes only minimal screen use, will boost her way ahead of other children. She will be able to concentrate easily and glide through the work that children without this kind of background will struggle with and find stressful. This is the sad truth.

      All three of my children have gone to a school that is considered highly academic, and I was not crazy about the academic emphasis in Kindergarten, or the art, which seemed way too instructive to me (but at least they had it). It was a choice between this school and schools that I sensed wouldn’t have challenged them at all. I realize that I am very blessed to have even had a choice.

      Because I protected my children the way you are doing in their first years, they have glided through. They continue to be unstressed, excellent students and their creativity has flourished in spite of the art lessons. We hear a lot about the importance of the first years, but this really cannot be emphasized enough. This is a precious and powerful window of time. So, don’t worry! Just keep up the wonderful parenting you are doing.

      And yes, when she’s not in school, keep allowing her to play and rest as she wishes. Trust her.

      • avatar Mary says:

        Thank you for responding. This helps to reassure me.

  32. avatar Amanda says:

    Perhaps instead of looking for the best play-based preschool and dreading kindergarden, parents could consider homeschooling/unschooling? All the play, all the down-time your child needs, all the social interaction they want, and no stresses of outside obligations. Why give kindergarden the power to direct your child’s life, both in school and after with homework, when your child is only 5? Why agree to have your time with your child spent on “recovery” from the rest of their stressful day, instead of learning, exploring, playing and loving your time together? It is always possible to enroll your child later in a school when they are not so young, if that seems right later on.
    Not everyone CAN homeschool–two full-time 9-5 parents with no relatives would be obliged to enroll their child in some kind of care–but I don’t feel like any discussion of play-centered learning can be complete without considering homeschooling.
    Amanda (mother of a 3 1/2 year old who does not attend preschool and is not planning on kindergarden)

  33. Hi Janet,

    I agree whole-heartedly that play is so important. why, i wonder, is it just in the first five years that it is so important? i understand trying to reclaim the preschool years but what about six and seven? 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”. when is that appropriate? if ever?

    would love to hear your thoughts on play and elementary school education.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Jennifer! This would be a great question to ask someone like Rick Ackerly, but my personal belief is that there is no perfect elementary school, including homeschool, although it does give parents the most control. The good news is that if we allow children to build strong foundations for a lifetime of learning in these vitally important first years (which they do when we trust them to learn through play and self-direct their development) we’ve given them the “goods” to succeed in a variety of educational settings. Hopefully we continue to encourage them to tinker, explore, create and daydream at home as much as possible….but they’ve entered the stage of development Piaget called “concrete operational” and are ready to learn in a less organic, less self-directed manner.

      When I was considering elementary schools for my eldest daughter, I checked out some very small experimental, progressive schools. Having gone to public schools myself, I felt fortunate to have these options because most people don’t. But then I took a good look at my daughter, whose favorite fantasy play was playing “school”! She dreamed of sitting at a desk and raising her hand. She’d seen this in books and couldn’t wait to be a part of it. In retrospect, a tiny school or homeschool would have been akin to a punishment for her…and also for my son, who thrives with the energy of a large group and loves team sports.

      Since my kids had such a strong foundation in their first years — lots of time to commune with “self”, develop their creativity, etc., the downsides to the schools they’ve attended have not negatively affected them (i.e., the too directive art classes didn’t discourage their creativity). For me, school has been about making the best choices I could and then trusting my kids and letting go. So much of parenting is about letting go… Wendy Mogel has wonderful things to say on this subject (and she was a RIE parent).

  34. avatar DesireeKapeka says:

    Where can I find out more about homeschooling here in Hawaii? I don’t know anyone who has done it, although it sounds like there may be some advantages… I have a 3 year old daughter who is attending preschool and my son is in the 1st grade at our public school.

  35. avatar Beth Weise says:

    I recently posted a blog about some preschoolers, nieces of mine, who dress up like Snow White, and are given an outside garden to play in and make flower soup for hours on end.

    http://www.acaringnanny.com/blog/page/2/

    Recently they were hunting for fairy houses in the woods. They spend hours outside together.
    My nanny service is always looking for the nanny who will be helping to bring forth the next Bill Gates. He didn’t come from structure and lessons, but loads of time to experiment on his own, and the confidence that results from just knowing he can do it. Mr Gates didn’t even graduate from college but snuck into the unversity computer labs at 11 pm at night and messed around.

  36. avatar Lesley says:

    The over scheduling of children is a concern and I always like to get back to the importance of balance and play expressed in the post and through the comments. The subject of the imaginary play, “running away” may fit as a literary device in this post, but I must caution that running away is a common and predictable theme in the imaginary play scenarios of young children.They will also pretend to be other people of all ages, including teenagers. I have found that children follow certain self- and group-created story lines for a series of days or weeks, work through them, add details, and move onto something else.

    • avatar janet says:

      Lesley, thank you for pointing that out… The school director who inspired this post has been working at preschools for over 25 years. She was struck by this “one-note” imaginary play that continued for the entire school year.

  37. avatar Greg Harvey says:

    Great post Janet. However, it worries me that people reading your blog would still misinterpret learning through play as unsupervised, no boundaries or zero behaviour management. Whether a child is engaged in solitary or social play, they are getting far more opportunities to develop the skills & knowledge they will require later in life, including school, then all the structured instructional lessons in the world.

    That’s not to say that there is no place for adult-led learning. Intentional teaching can be just as effective if the adult is respectful and unsterstanding of the child/ren’s different needs, interests and abilities.

    I think the ‘academic’ services vehemently sell themselves as being best for children’s academic future while play-based centres usually tend to be a little more gentle in promoting themselves. And parents often buy into it as it seems to be delivered to send fear of failure if their way of doing things is not followed.

    There is a wonderful network of professionals and parents who truly believe in the value of play, but perhaps the battle to get our voice heard is being lost because of the time and money the often private institutions put into advertising their so called merits.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks for these excellent and important points, Greg. It makes a lot of sense that ‘academic’ services would have to work harder and louder on the ‘sell’ than common sense does. We’ll just have to keep trying to get our voices of reason heard…and hope that as frauds like “Baby Einstein” and “Your Baby Can Read” are being exposed, parents and educators will come to their senses. Please keep up the wonderful work you do!

      • avatar Greg Harvey says:

        Thanks Janet :)

        Those two you name are a perfect example of what sells to parents. Most parents desperately want to discover their child is exceptional and will go to almost any length to try to ensure that.

        In many ways I think the parents are living out their dreams through their children. There’s also a bit of one upmanship gong on. “My child is performing better than yours” type thing.

        We just need to get ourselves a better publicity agent.

  38. avatar Grace says:

    The belief that “play based” means “unstructured” is so misleading! It’s just that the structure is deep, embedded, and based on providing rich openended materials and experiences. That is WAY harder than just bossing children around (aka teacher-directed). In a well-planned, deeply considered, well-supplied early childhood setting, the structure is invisible and yet unmistakable. THAT is what many (not all) Montessori environments excel at. Imaginative play is often discouraged, though, in Montessori. And the “richness and planning” are often overlooked in “play-based” programs which then get panicky and include “lessons” or worksheets to make up for it.

  39. avatar Cecile says:

    I run a play-based French immersion home daycare, and I oh so totally agree with you. I see way too many parents concerned with putting their 18 month-old on the fast-track to Harvard. Those parents, attracted to my daycare for the benefit of learning a second language (of course! It looks so great on a resume!), never end up signing up with me because they are turned off by the fact that I don’t actually sit the kids down to teach them French vocabulary or pen strokes or shapes and numbers…

    And honestly, I would probably turn them down if they decided to enroll anyway. As much as I would love to help the child have a place where they can be a child, I can’t take the risk of getting a bad reputation as a daycare provider when those parents decide that their kids aren’t learning anything–which is completely untrue.

    The kids in my care stay for no less than a year, and an average of 2. Some were with me from 15 months until 4+. I have only great references because the people I choose as clients do understand the benefits of natural play-based learning for toddlers. And they do see what they learn. All my daycare kids are independent, resourceful, creative, social, and know how to learn and to enjoy it. And they understand French (some even speak it quite well), which is a bonus in terms of brain development (not just language-wise).

    Last year I went through a rough patch and I agreed to enroll one little girl with such “helicopter” parents just because I needed the extra money. Oh what a mistake. The child is 2 and a half, and she also has swim lessons, dance lessons and I don’t know what else, and her mother is the type who is CONSTANTLY engaging her and directing play at home.

    The result is that this little girl is utterly incapable of playing with others, has no desire to explore on her own, seems to have zero interest in anything unless actively engaged, and thus she will only “play” if I take her by the hand and create something to do with and for her where I basically ask her to “perform” in some way.

    She has been with me 6 months already and the most I’ve been able to get her to do on her own was go down the slide a few times with the others. The rest of the time, she either play those “performance” games with me (which I try to discourage), clings to the toys she brings from home (*sigh*), or follows me around as I supervise play for the others and go through ‘teachable moments’ with them.

    It makes me really sad for her and I honestly don’t know what to do to get her back on the playful childhood track so she can develop some curiosity, learn to self-entertain by fostering her own creativity, and actually enjoy interacting with her peers when there are no clear “products” or expectations.

    Any suggestions welcome.

  40. avatar Heike Larson says:

    What an important post! I work at a Montessori school, and one of the things I value deeply about Montessori is the respect for the independence of the child, the long, unstructured work periods (often 2-3 hours, twice a day!) during which the children are free to choose materials from the shelves, and “work” with them for as long as they are interested, free from interruptions by or direct instruction from adults.

    Here’s a great quote by Dr. Montessori on the importance of such independent, child-led activity:

    “Children decide on their actions under the prompting of natural laws. Adults do it by taking thought. If the child is to exercise this power, it is clearly necessary that he be not directed by someone telling him what to do at every moment of his life. Inner forces affect his choice, and if someone usurps the function of this guide, the child is prevented from developing either his will or his concentration. So if we want him to acquire these traits, the first thing we must do is to make him independent of the adult.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 218)

    I always wonder why many so-called “play-based” schools chunk up their day in 30- or 45-minute chunks, times during which all children do art, or snack, or play outside, or sing, or “work at centers.” Wouldn’t it be much better to leave it up to the children when they’d like to head for an easel to draw, or pick an instrument to play, or go to the kitchen area and prepare and share snack? That’s the unscheduled, child-led freedom children have in an authentic Montessori program!

    Unfortunately, even many parents at Montessori schools don’t quite get the principles: we unfortunately see some parents pick up their 4-year-olds at our schools, and take them to Kumon (!) or other very adult-led activities, every day after school. I personally have a two structured activities limit for my own children; after school and on weekends, outside of those two hours, we can be found in a park, or our yard, or our family, engaged in child-led, unstructured play!

  41. avatar Ruth says:

    Hi – thanks for this article. I would love any suggestions you have on how to encourage my 3.5 year old son to play more on his own at home. Since he was little I have tried to provide a variety of different toys for him to explore and now we have a house with a room dedicated to play and also a fenced yard where he can run and dig in the dirt, play with the hose, with his cars etc. I don’t think I am a helicopter mum when it comes to play and I try and leave him be and encourage him to ask me for help when he is getting frustrated with something rather than just jumping in. I do also join in his play when it feels right.

    However I still find that a lot of the time he needs me to be his play companion. If I walk away for a few minutes he comes to find me.

    This is at odds with our experience of him at pre-school/childcare where he has gotten in ‘trouble’ before because he just wants to do his own thing and not necessarily participate in the structured activities such as circle time or crafts.

    • avatar janet says:

      Interesting, Ruth! From what you’ve shared, it sounds like this is all about boundaries. What do you do when he comes after you to play with him? Are you okay with going about your business with calm acknowledgements? For example, “I hear you wanting me to come play with you. I can’t do that right now, but maybe after do such-in-such.” Interestingly, when you are comfortable and confident setting boundaries with your boy at home, this might also translate into him being more participatory at school. Here’s a post about play and boundaries that you may not have read: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/stop-entertaining-your-toddler-in-3-steps-2/

  42. avatar Laurence P says:

    Hey, funny, I DID run away from piano lessons when I was five once and was very much punished for it. I always hated the piano until I became an adult and regret I haven’t really learned. But now I think I should have been listened to a little more. Why a perfectly nice and docile child does escape from her mother (who couldn’t run because of the neigbourgh’s daughter the same age) to hide in the forest during piano lessons ??? I had to pratice until 6th grade at least and then pretended I had too much work to go on (lol)

    But I wonder about all this. As you may know French schools are quite rigid. On the one hand I wish for my son a very free environment at first. But on the other hand I wonder when he’ll be able to go back in the system that is ours. What I mean is that want him to be able as a teenager to chose any course he wants and is able to take. But then he’ll have to do with very rigid learning conditions (if he choses them).

    You talk about 5 years old. At five, in some preschool, they almost teach them how to read… What I’m trying to ask is :
    - Would you think it best to try a kind of Montessory preschool if at all possible and then make him go to regular school and adapt to its standards. Because this way he’ll be more independant and we’ll have a better balance. But then at what age ?
    - Or is it best to make him know the regular system because it will be all the more difficult to him to adapt to new rules and ways of learning when he is older. I’ll just have to let him chose all his other activities and let him be free at home ?

    Tricky business…
    Have a nice day
    Laurence

  43. avatar mcsnick says:

    Please please please read what I have to say.

    My heart agrees with you. But I think I have a unique vantage point because I teach first grade. The state standards are putting SO much pressure on us, that if kids don’t come in to KINDERGARDEN knowing all their letter names, letter sounds, rhyming and segmenting they are behind. Very behind. In order for K teachers to get the students reading at the level they’re supposed to be, they just don’t have much time to spend teaching letter names/sounds, blending, segmenting, etc. They have to assume kids come in with these skills.

    Here is part of a text that a K student is supposed to be able to read by the end of the year: “The children are busy at school. They sing a song. They paint a picture. They play a game.”

    That is a lot of learning to accomplish in 9 months. And it is expected that teachers will get ALL kids reading at this level. Not just the top third who have parents who read with them every night. Every student. Even those who had barely seen a book before coming to school, watch TV for hours on end, and are wracked with anxiety over home situations. They have to be reading too. OUR JOBS ARE ON THE LINE OVER IT.

    So NO I don’t want kids to have to be doing structured learning in pre-school. But if they’re not, they’re coming into Kindergarden behind the game. Who is going to make up for that lost time? Are kindergarden teachers supposed to teach those beginning skills AND get ALL students reading at a level D by the end of the year? Impossible. Are the first grade teachers supposed to take K students reading at a level A (because they spent lots of time learning letter sounds, etc.) and get ALL students to a level J by the end first grade? That’s impossible too.

    We don’t want it this way either. Kids are stressed. Teachers are stressed. Parents are stressed. We see so many children with anxiety, anxiety and more anxiety. Our kids are crumbling. Parents have GOT to speak out to our government and say NO MORE. These expectations are NOT appropriate and I want a change to be made.

  44. avatar Sarah says:

    Thank you for this post! I am a full day child care teacher and I see this happening all the time. Children I babysit for who are in elementary school who are booked with after school activities everyday crave to have time at home to just play. It breaks my heart to drag them to another activity everyday. As you have said above it’s not about no structure, it’s about having balance between the two and the younger they are the less amount of their time should be structured. As they grow they can have more but play is learning and I wish everyone understood that.

Leave a Reply

©2014 Janet Lansbury  site design by Zaudhaus, Inc. | Riviera 4 Media
Pinterest