Three decades ago, 40 percent of a typical preschool day was devoted to child-initiated play. Today, this number has fallen dramatically. Over the years, play has become second fiddle to early academic preparation. But are we actually helping children succeed academically and socially by reducing the amount of play in their day?
Recent research shows that preschool children who engage in various forms of open-ended play display more complex language skills, more developed social skills, greater levels of empathy, higher levels of creativity, and better-developed interpersonal skills. Additionally, preschool children who spend more time playing are less aggressive, exhibit higher levels of executive function, display more complex thinking skills, and have brains with more complex neurological structures.
Nations like China, Japan and Finland are touted for their exceptional international math and science assessment scores. Those countries also boast preschools that are playful and experimental, not instructive. Much has been written about Finland and the Scandinavian approach to education, where play is a priority and getting dirty is encouraged and viewed as an opportunity to learn.
A new documentary shows the contrasts between America’s craze for standardized tests and Scandinavia’s acceptance of nature. Play serves as a powerful engine that drives learning in the preschool years and beyond. “NaturePlay: Take Childhood Back” examines this issue. The underlying differentiation shown in the film is the notion that “children belong in nature and nature belongs in education.”
Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal featured an article on The Scandinavian School of Jersey City, a “gentle place where 92 children play barefoot to feel a connection to their environment and the air often smells like peppermint or citrus from aromatherapy. Classrooms have bowls of pine cones, seashells and rocks for toys. Some chairs are sawed-off tree stumps.”
Children who experience play-based preschool programs boast a strong advantage over those who are denied play and are more likely to become happy, healthy, well-adjusted grownups.
How would you feel about sending your child to a play-focused preschool?