Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Importance of Play

Here are 3 paragraphs from a recent New York Times article called “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” By PAUL TOUGH

To read the whole article, go here.


Kindergarten has ceased to be a garden of delight and has become a place of stress and distress,” warned a report released in March by a research group called the Alliance for Childhood, which is advised by some of the country’s most esteemed progressive-education scholars. There is now too much testing and too little free time, the report argues, and kids are being forced to try to read before they are ready. The solution, according to the report’s authors, is a return to ample doses of “unstructured play” in kindergarten. If kids are allowed to develop at their own paces, they will be happier and healthier and less stressed out. And there will still be plenty of time later on to learn how to read.

Check out The Alliance for Childhood and their recent report called Crisis in the Kindergarten. I once visited a Waldorf kindergarten and was so impressed at the simplicity of their kindergarten routines. The children were self-motivated, engaged, busy, exploring and happy. None of them were supposed to learn to read by the end of the year. Their day wasn’t divided into separate chunks of time for learning different subjects. They were baking, singing, chatting, playing make believe and fort building all day long. It was so soothing and refreshing and it felt so unhurried and developmentally appropriate.

Rewards and punishments:

In the past, when psychologists (or parents or teachers or priests) tried to improve children’s self-control, they used the principles of behaviorism, reinforcing good and bad behaviors with rewards and punishments. The message to kids was that terrible things would happen if they didn’t control their impulses, and the role of adults, whether parents or preschool teachers, was to train children by praising them for their positive self-control (“Look at how well Cindy is sitting!”) and criticizing them for their lapses. And in most American pre-kindergartens and kindergartens, behaviorism, in some form, is still the dominant method. But Bodrova and Leong say that those “external reinforcement systems” create “other-directed regulation” — good behavior done not from some internal sense of control but for the approval of others, to avoid punishment and win praise and treats. And that, they say, is a kind of regulation that is not particularly valuable or lasting. Children learn only how to be obedient, how to follow orders, not how to understand and regulate their own impulses.

Alfie Kohn writes and lectures on rewards and punishments for both teachers and parents. Check out his books Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting. I feel like there is too much rewarding done in classrooms across America. Children need to do something for the sake of doing it, not because they will get an extrinsic reward for completing a task. Only then will true motivation take place. Please, let’s stop the carrot and stick mentality! It’s so superficial and insulting to a student’s intelligence and ability.

Play vs. Work:

Today, play is seen by most teachers and education scholars as a break from hard work or a reward for positive behaviors, not a place to work on cognitive skills. But in Tools of the Mind classrooms, that distinction disappears: work looks a lot like play, and play is treated more like work. When I asked Duckworth about this, she said it went to the heart of what was new and potentially important about the program. “We often think about play as relaxing and doing what you want to do,” she explained. “Maybe it’s an American thing: We work really hard, and then we go on vacation and have fun. But in fact, very few truly pleasurable moments come from complete hedonism. What Tools does — and maybe what we all need to do — is to blur the line a bit between what is work and what is play. Just because something is effortful and difficult and involves some amount of constraint doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.”

Yes, why can’t play and work be fun? If school were more like summer camp and enrichment programs then students would have fun and enjoy working on their goals. Why do we separate school from fun? Why do most children remember field trips, friends and extra-curriculars fondly when they reminisce about school instead of remembering the subject matter they were supposed to have learned? We need to find students’ passions to help them learn what is engaging and give them a reason to work toward a goal. We need to stop telling them what their goals should be, but instead help them explore what it is that is both fun and work at the same time. Isn’t that the adult mantra -- love what you do, do what you love?


  1. Kerry, I love this post! May I repost it on my blog with the proper credits to you?

    Tracy Stevens