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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108 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! 😀

  4. avatar nids says:

    I understand n totally agree but I wat to know few things. .
    my daughter is 4yrs..n she is nt going to school. .she is free to play…I hv arrraged her room wid minimum of natural toys…I m almost bsy wid my household job or knitting stitching etc…we dnt watch tv at all…I try to follow waldorf homeschooling wid her…I m struggling wid her no in everything. ..she brings something n thn wont keep it bck…if I ask hr or mke her understand to do so she resist to do..I take her to park to play bt she wont do mch rathr sit n watch others..till she gets really good company to play. ..somedays she runs n njy a lot whn other children also play in grp wid her…basically she shows resistance in physical activities. ..which I feel is so mch important…She wnt ride her bicycle..I hv to always push…I really dnt understand where I m gettng wrong wid her…coz ths worries me n sometyms I get frustrated. .dt knw wht is the correct way to bring willing ness in her to do things.

  5. avatar nids says:

    My daughter is nly d girl nt gng to school..so she doesn’t gets company. .though I try to call her friends home to play sometyms..bt thy hv a different schedule as thy go to school my daughter comes bck home since it gets dark around 5pm..n children generally come to play at 5…my daughter sleeps evryday by 7pm. I hv set a rhythm wid her..bt still it seems somethng is missing…I m short tempered…I consciously work on tht..bt still I loose my control though I never beat her bt yes I scold her..n sometyms ignore…

    • avatar Roberta Miller says:

      Let your daughter develop naturally. It sounds like she’s observing when she’s at the park or around others her age. That is completely normal and ok. Don’t worry that she is not joining in. She will in time. Just give her time to develop and naturally figure things out. Don’t beat yourself up either. Every mother has lost their cool. There is no perfect parent. Take a deep breath and let forgive yourself and let her figure out play on her own. It will happen.

  6. avatar Stephanie says:

    Hi, Janet. This post is a few years old, but the situation seems like it’s gotten even worse the last few years! My son is 3, so not school-aged yet, but our school district is switching to all-day kindergarten next year and I keep reading about how the kids are learning math and reading already. I have a very active and social little one and he’s not going to do well sitting and listening to instruction all day. We don’t have private schools in our town, so I don’t have a lot of options. Do you feel like a structured kindergarten is too much for most kids, or can we overcome it with play and exploratory learning at home? I guess my options are homeschooling or skipping kindergarten altogether (I don’t think it’s legally required, but I need to research.) His birthday is in May, so I could also hold him back a year, I guess.

    • avatar Patricia says:

      Stephanie, I’ll be interested in hearing more about what you decide. I really don’t want to do homeschooling, but the all day kindergarten gives me the creeps!

      • avatar Sarah says:

        As far as all day kindergarten, it may vary by state but I recently found out that my state by law has to allow you to send your child the minimum (eg half day). Also kindergarten is not mandatory.

    • avatar Jennifer says:

      I think an all day kindergarten actually leaves more time for play! I am so thankful ours in moving to one. The extra 3 hours allows for a 20 minute morning recess and 40 minute lunch break, which means less rushed lesson time. Our elementry is one of the best in the country & our Kinder teachers voted for it, although it meant more hours for them.

  7. avatar Sarah says:

    I completely agree that children learn best through play. I disagree however that structured activities are bad. Out of our entire 12-13 hour day, my kids usually have a class that is 1-2 hours long. The classes that they do typically have a short structures component (such as a circle time), and the rest is free play with different toys/materials than we have at home (ex. sensory tables). It’s a chance for moms to talk and get the support/friendships they need, and also lets the kids socialize. I don’t think there are a lot of toddler/preschool “enrichment” classes that are very structured. My kids love going out and exploring new environments and seeing their friends, and I love the interaction with other adults.

  8. avatar Patricia says:

    Our daughter is only 1, and I’m already so worried about this. We have some excellent play centered pre-schools in the area that I’m looking in to, but our school district is considering all-day kindergarten, which just seems like toooooo much for a 5 year old! Janet, do you have an opinion on beginning preschool at 2yrs vs 3yrs, and had day kindergarten vs all day kindergarten? I would so appreciate your input! Other parents? Any comments?

  9. I struggle with this daily. Families whose children have been in my care since they were 6 weeks old often leave when they turn 4 because the parents want a ‘preschool’ so that their child will be ready for kindergarten. I do my best to explain that our playful learning process IS what children need, not abstract or teacher directed learning.

    It’s hard because all families want what’s best for their child and it can be a struggle to trust your child and not rush into formal teaching in the early years.

  10. avatar Jen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Janet, for confirming the direction I’ve been headed in as a child care provider since I opened 5 years ago. As a previous elementary school teacher, I felt a great need to ensure that I provided an ‘educational’ atmosphere for the children I care for. Thankfully my experience had led me to understand that participating and contributing in a multiage group is ‘educational’, exploring outdoors is ‘educational’, connecting to our community through library clubs and play groups is ‘educational’ , and most of all, exploring at our own pace and according to our own interests is EDUCATIONAL! Finding your work has been the inspiration for me to feel comfortable and confident that I’m doing ‘enough’ when I provide simple play materials (scarves, magnets, river rocks…), and watch intently as the children’s imagination transforms them. My learning agenda does not matter, what matters is how these children choose to explore these materials on this day, and relate to each other. I provide a quiet, confident foundation against which they can bounce their ideas, share their successes and vent their frustrations. Otherwise, I often simply stand back, observe, plan my next interesting outing or set of loose parts and, occasionally, serve the odd healthy snack or meal. Oh! And change a diaper or seven…

  11. avatar PATTI BROCATO says:

    This was a great article. As my receptionist work at the University at Buffalo Child Care Center leads me to observe children coming into the facility, I can see their reactions on whether they are ready to play or just wind down from the previous night at home, or whatever activities they were engaged in. Like you said, play is so important.

  12. avatar inang_guro says:

    This article is another vindication for our private pre-k learning center located in a fast-urbanizing province. We give almost 30-50% of a 3-hour class to indoor (in the different areas) and outdoor free-play for our 3’s to 5’s. However, we get criticized for doing so because all we did was let the children play and gave little time to actual teaching. We do as much as we can with the little that we have (resources, time, and space) and see to it that the children get to play, run around in circles (because of the tiny space) and solve problems on their own (who gets to use the materials first, etc.) which they don’t have enough opportunities to do at home because they are either kept busy with technology or tutorials. A lot of children don’t spend outdoor time when at home because it is either unsafe or nobody’s going to look after them. So our children are missing a lot in terms of playing and learning through self-discovery which I believe is the highest form of learning in the early years. Unfortunately, we feel the pressure of “keeping up” with other schools/centers because there is this expectation that children should be able to count to 100, read simple words, and write within the lines by the time they get to Kindergarten. The parents feel we are not doing enough to prepare their children academically. Many parents will move out with the objective that their children be academically ready and competitive in Kindergarten/Grade 1. This is sad, both for the children and for our center which barely make it financially.

  13. avatar BreezyLA says:

    My b/g twins are 2.5 and we’ve already been questioned several times why they aren’t in preschool. We have playdates, church, outings. I’ve started to feel that not only am I inadequate, but maybe my children will be too. Will they know how to line up by preschool?? Maybe they should be learning mandarin by now?? It’s exhausting.

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