“Let the Children Play” is Developmentally Appropriate Education by Thomas Ultican
By T. Ultican 9/25/2019
Two education experts and fathers have issued a clarion call to “Let the Children Play.” Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle co-authored Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive. These two fathers with young children were both shocked by the education system they found when the American scholar Doyle took his family to Finland and Finland’s Education Director General, Sahlberg, brought his family to the United States. Their book is a tour de force about play practices globally and the research supporting the developmental need for children to play.
The authors document the stunning reduction in authentic outdoor self-directed play children in the United States and around the world are experiencing. They share a large amount of scholarly data indicating what a big mistake it is to reduce recess and they identify the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as the cause for that policy error. Doyle and Sahlberg report on the amazing results both physically and academically being reported from diverse schools worldwide that have reintroduced significant authentic play. The book concludes with statements by 27 education scholars from Asia to Europe about the importance of high-quality play to human development.
The Authors as Depicted on the Book Cover
In 2015 when William Doyle arrived in Finland as a visiting scholar with his wife and seven-year-old son, he found a school system that sent their children outside for 15-minutes every hour to participate in self-directed play. They sent children outside even when the temperature is as low as 5° Fahrenheit below which they stay inside to play. He shares that one day while watching children go to lunch one girl did a cartwheel in the hallway and noted “these children were expected to giggle, wiggle, and squirm from time to time, since that’s what children (especially boys) are biologically engineered to do …”
That same year the former Director of Finland’s Ministry of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, came to Harvard as a visiting professor. He found a school system that was increasingly “based on stress, standardization, the de-professionalization of the teaching profession, and the systematic elimination of play in childhood education, even in kindergartens.” When he attempted to enroll his 3-year-old into a local preschool, he encountered “a stunning new concept in American education – ‘preschool readiness.’” Sahlberg had heard that Harvard University which was in the neighborhood had developed the idea of “college-readiness” which had been pushed down as far as “kindergarten-readiness” for 5-year-olds. “But applying the idea to 3-year-olds seemed downright bizarre.”
Yong Zhao is currently Foundation Distinguished Professor, School of Education, University of Kansas. He is quoted a few times in Let the Children Play. I heard this noted author and extremely amusing speaker address “college-readiness” and “kindergarten readiness” during his keynote speech at the Network for Public Education (NPE) conference in Chicago 2015. He said as a parent he was looking for “out-of-my-basement readiness.” Then he mentioned that he met Kim Kardashian in a Los Angeles elevator and observed, “Kim Kardashian has out-of-my-basement readiness.” He asserted that the only real “kindergarten-readiness” was if the school was ready for the five-year-old.
GERM is Eliminating Play
Global Education Reform Slide by Sahlberg Presented at NPE 2018 in Indianapolis
Too often, curiosity and creativity are being sundered when children go to preschool, kindergarten or elementary school. “The global education race for ‘higher standards’ at lower financial costs have turned many schools to factories that try to produce standardized products efficiently on tight schedules.” Modern education reform is developmentally inappropriate. As Gloria Ladson-Billings, Distinguished Professor in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison states, “Anyone who fully understands child development knows that children’s ‘play’ is children’s ‘work.’”
The Let the Children Play authors assert,
“The war against play is largely an unintended consequence of inept political attempts to ‘raise standards’ and ‘close the achievement gap’ by increasing ‘rigor’ and forcing academic demands on younger and younger children. It is a war being waged by an alliance of politicians, administrators, and ideologues, many of whom have one glaring weakness in common – they have little or no knowledge of how children actually learn. It is in effect, a conspiracy of ignorance, misguided policies, and misinformation.” (Emphasis added)
“This ‘GERM’ is … a virus spreading around the world, infecting school systems, and it is killing play in our schools.”
The book reports that according to data from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) “American children have suffered a startling drop of creativity” in the wake of recent decades of play deprivation. In 2011, Professor of Creativity and Innovation Kyung-Hee Kim of William and Mary reported on a review of 300,000 TTCT scores which had been constantly increasing until the 1980s and have been dropping steadily ever since. In the Creativity Research Journal, Kim reported “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”
There are many unsupported claims indicating that learning math and reading skills in preschool and kindergarten gives children an education advantage. Driven by people associated with GERM, these claims have led to an ever increasing academic focus for these children and a commensurate reduction in play. The advocacy group Defending the Early Years notes, “There is no research showing long-term advantages to reading at 5 compared to reading at 6 or 7.” Their founder Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who happens to be Matt Damon’s mother, states,
“The research is clear. Faster is not better when it comes to early education; young children need play and hands-on interactions for genuine learning to occur.”
A 2015 study at Stanford University, “The Gift of Time? The school Starting Age and Mental Health”, found a strong mental health benefit to a later school starting age and there was also a likely academic payoff. A German study of 400,000 15-year-olds found no benefit to early entry into school. A Danish study found that by delaying kindergarten by one year, 11-year-olds saw a dramatic reduction in hyperactivity and attentions deficit. New York City University Professor Joshua Aronson shared, “I have learned that American kids don’t suffer from ‘Ritalin deficiency’; they suffer from a lack of nature, play, and freedom that their hunter-gather ancestors enjoyed. Play and exercise demonstrably boost academic achievement.”
Deeper Play is the Key
How Play Helps Children Learn and Grow
The authors warn that more play in not necessarily better. For play to provide the benefits described above it must be high-quality play. The authors call it “deeper play” and define it with five main ingredients:
Self-direction: “Self-directed play means that we let children decide their own play in a safe and rich environment where they are comfortable to explore their own mind and potential.
Intrinsically motivated: “In intrinsically motivated play, children behave or perform an action because they enjoy it and find inspiration in the action itself.”
Use of imagination: “Sir Ken Robinson says that ‘imagination is the source of all human achievement,’ and it is therefore an essential condition for creativity and innovation.”
A process orientation: “Process-oriented play is enjoyable for the sake of the activity itself, and is not concerned with an end result or product.”
Positive emotions: “When children play, they should have a deep sense of enjoyment and fun, and may also feel joy, gratitude, inspiration, hope, love, and a sense of flow, or the full absorption in the process.”
In the book’s much more complete explanation of the use of imagination, the authors note how children’s habits of mind and imagination are being undermined by an overemphasis on standardization and testing which is narrowing curriculum. They claim, “Standardization has become the worst enemy of creativity and imagination in teaching and learning in school.”
An study by Professor Rebecca Marcon of the University of North Florida observed 343 preschool students at three different schools. One was academically oriented, one encouraged play-based learning and the third was a blend of the first two. In ongoing studies Marcon reported “children who were in a [play-based] preschool program showed stronger academic performance in all subject areas measured compared to children who had been in more academically focused or more middle-of-the-road programs.”
Let the Children Play discourages digital play. A clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stated,
“Media (e.g., television, video games, and smart-phone and tablet applications) use often encourages passivity and the consumption of others’ creativity rather than active learning and socially interactive play. Most importantly, immersion in electronic media takes away time from real play, either outdoors or indoors.”
Reporting for the New York Times in October 2018, Nellie Bowles said that in Silicon Valley there is a “dark consensus about screens and kids”. She claimed, “Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.”
A 2015 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicates that technology in classrooms has become a net negative. OECD’s Andreas Schleicher declared,
“In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools. We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.”
Play May Be Getting a Revival
There are several “play” pilot programs going on in the United States and throughout the world. In Fort Worth Texas, Professor Debbie Rhea of Texas Christian University created a program that tripled recess from 20-minutes a day to four separate 15-minute periods. In 2014, The Let’s Inspire Innovation in Kids (LiiNK) project started as a pilot in four schools; two using the program and two not using it to serve as a control group. By fall of 2017 LiiNK had expanded to 20 schools serving 8,000 primary students. The authors report, “So far, the early results of Professor Rhea’s LiiNK experiment are so impressive, and so rapid, that the project may have the potential to trigger something close to a miracle in American education – more recess for children.”
China’s national Office of the Ministry of Education in 2017 announced a nationwide early education initiative with the theme “Play – Sparking the Joy of Childhood,” focusing on 3- to 6-year-olds. Academic subjects are banned.
There are play programs underway in Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai and Hong Kong. New Zealand and Scotland have also started large play focused programs. A small school district on Long Island is reporting amazing results from their new play-focused program.
I encourage people who care about education to read this well documented and thorough report on the crisis of play in school.