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)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. 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.

    1. Emily Nighswander says:

      Another Grandma here. I so agree with you. In fact, 5 Years is the bare minimum. I’d say 55 years. lol

    2. I agree! Life is stressful enough without putting more pressure on our youngest! They need playful exercise and learning to play with other children.

  2. 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.

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

      1. What about my daughter that’s autistic with an IQ of 124 but impulse control of a child 3 years younger than herself. I often feel she needs a certain level of structure I wasn’t prepared for. My neurotypical son really thrives with the free play approach

  3. 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. 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. My daughter is nly d girl nt gng to she doesn’t gets company. .though I try to call her friends home to play 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 still it seems somethng is missing…I m short tempered…I consciously work on still I loose my control though I never beat her bt yes I scold her..n sometyms ignore…

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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!

      1. 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.

      2. Well that sure is a privileged statement. Many families have to have two working parents to get by, and once school ends they have to pay extra for child care. And if there are older siblings, two different pick up times creates an extra hardship. That is why several states have now passed a law that requires schools to offer full day kindergarten. I do not believe that anyone is required to keep there kinders there full day, it’s just an option for the many parents who need it.

        1. That’s not a privileged statement! These are parents and caretakers doing the best they can for their children in their family’s unique situation(s). Don’t assume that a parent who doesn’t want to send their child to all-day kindergarten is looking down on others who want to send their children all day or who have to; and do not look down on them for expressing their worries in this constructive manner, either!

      3. Jaime Snow says:

        I skipped kindergarten this year for my 5 year old, because it was full-time. Because he wasn’t six before the new year, I didn’t have to register him. He had an amazing year. He played, he rested. We never had to deal with after school meltdowns from “keeping it together” all day. We did “work”, as he has never attended preschool either (besides a one day farm school). The work consisted of following a guiding “teach your child to read book” and a few other worksheets for handwriting, etc… It took about 3-4 mornings a week for no more than 45 minutes. And he is on the same level as his friends who attended school. Besides that, it was learning through play!

        After working with children for over 20 years, I believe this academic push is tied to more anxious children, more meltdowns from exhaustion (kids are always on the go), more children looking to adults to tell them what to do and how to do it (they go from school to extracurricular activities directed by adults). When I first started working with children, it wasn’t this way. I feel so passionate about it (after seeing a negative impact) that I was bound and determined to give my children a simple childhood.

  7. 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. 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. Thank you for this reminder. My daughter soon to be 2 is an only child, not in daycare so we have both a weekly gymnastics and swim class at the local Y. I jokingly refer to the gymnastics as toddler bumper cars, because while there is structure, there’s so much room for them to be themselves because the instructor believes in kids being kids. Sometimes I feel like she doesn’t get enough peer interaction, but we also do things like story time and go to the park multiple times per week.

    I came from a home that was very strict and isolating and want really asked to be a child. I want my daughter to learn as a child should through play and curiosity, and if she makes a mess at least she likes helping to clean it up!

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