“Play Is Problem Solving”

Early learning programs enrolling children as young as 3 years old are considered critical to closing achievement gaps, evident as early as kindergarten, and an important first step in a student’s cradle-to-career trajectory.

But along with more formal integration of early learning into K–12 education comes a narrow focus on tested content and skills. Time for play-based activities is increasingly taken up with math and reading instruction. The Alliance for Childhood found that full-day kindergartners in New York and Los Angeles spend less than 30 minutes playing and four to six times more time on literacy, math, and test-taking.

Several studies show the benefits of play: it allows students to develop social skills like empathy, reduces tendencies toward delinquency and emotional disturbances, and helps students practice impulse control.

As more states put funding toward early learning, play advocates worry that politicians will trade long-term social development gains for bumps in test scores, the Washington Post reports in this week’s most-clicked SmartBrief story.

Arlington, Va., public preschools offer a model for developing programs—full-day preschool anchored to a play-based curriculum that integrates vocabulary and numeracy learning. Through 5th grade, students in these programs show test score gains more than those without.

What’s the state of play in your school?


  1. As educators, we tend to ignore the importance of playtime in learning. Although I teach older students, allowing them time to do a physical activity even prior to the class lesson helps to stimulate their thinking and also generates interest in what comes next. It is a great ice-breaker, especially after lunch, when everyone feels sleepy. For those students who are bodily-kinesthetic, this is appropriate for them.

  2. The state of play at my school is sadly lacking. I would estimate that our kindergarten students in South Florida average about the same amount of play time as in New York and Los Angeles. In addition, P.E., art and music programs, where play time is key, are being cut in many counties. I am a music teacher and believe whole heartedly in the use of play as a learning tool. Students who have fun while they are learning are more likely to remember what they’ve learned.

  3. I teach 5th grade at a rural school in South Georgia. At my school we have time set aside each day for recess or unstuctured PE (big name for playtime). This allows our students time each day to work out personal problems or simple time away from the problem to allow for clearer thinking. As a result we have less physical disputes among students and the overall want of the students to solve their own problems seems greater than at schools that do not set aside time for their students to be kids. I agree with Laura Varlas that our students playtime is problemsolving.

  4. As a second grade teacher I feel very strongly about the topic of “Play is Problem Solving”. There is very little play time/ recess for our elementary students. Our district has all day Kindergarten. All students k-2 receive the same amount of free play time, regardless of age,grade or learning styles. Brain research has shown the benefits of bodily/ kinesthetic movements throughout the day as a tool to enhance learning and retain information. I would love to see more emphasis on free play as an instructional asset. Considering the added health benefits as well, I feel that this is a win/ win option.

  5. I am commenting on the learning through play. As an educator and early intervention coordinator play is very important as a child meet his/her developmental milestones.Children learn more through play then we as educators can image. In my profession, I work with infants to toddler up to age three I work with providers who works with children from birth to three years of age doing play therapy for one hour weekly to help children meet his/her developmental milestones at an appropriate age.All the therapy is done through play basis leaarning strategies.When I transition a child into preschool the evaluations are completed through play basis observation from all therapist. Play is important because it stimulates all learning areas regardless of age.

  6. Choosing Early Childhood Education as my degree adheres to the fact that play is definetly an important aspect in how young children learn.
    Play opens up new areas for children to explore their world around them, while practicing social emotional skills with peers.
    Play helps young children learn fundamentals about sharing, communicating, and exploring. Whether solitary play, or with another child, play if even for a short amount of time, needs to be brought back in public educational settings.
    In having experience in teaching at several grade levels as a substitute teacher, what has striked me as most interesting, is the fact that academics lay so heavily at the kindergarten level, and not so much on “free exploration”. What happened to free-choice or centers, where students could engage in a variety of learning areas? Exploring books, pre-writing skills, science exploration, songs and fingerplays with a friend are all important aspects to how students learn.
    It seems as though there needs to be a balance between academics and play in today’s classrooms.
    Overall, play needs to be offered more in early level grades, as well as upper grades to help stimulate thinking and learning skills.

  7. I agree with this blog that play is so important in children’s lives in order for them to develop life long skills. I currently teach all day kindergarten and am also feeling the pressure of raising test scores in reading, writing, and math. I have to make time in order for my students to be able to engage in play. I wish districts would focus a little more on children being children and not so much on test scores.

  8. I must say that I agree with the consensus that play is so important. Mental and emotional health are just as important and even more so than high test scores for children. What good are professionals if they are socially inept? I am a high school Spanish teacher and can’t help thinking that for some of my students it would have been beneficial for them to have more social development activities throughout the lower grades. And the achievment tests are great but a bit narrow in measuring for the wide spectrum of respectable jobs, vocations and professions. They don’t measure some of the skills that are vital to working with other people in the job force.

  9. As a Health Educator, I can certainly relate to using body movement or constructive play to facilitate learning and other development of a child. Healthy play can improve or enhance cognitive abilities, as well as many other aspects of ones total well-being. I’m encouraged by the research.

  10. Jennifer, you are very perceptive in recognizing the importance of developing the whole child. Too often all the focus is on testing data…which we understand is essential, however somtimes to the detriment of our students. I was encouraged by the research, and hopefully in the future we can create more of a balance with our teaching strategies.

  11. As an educator and a mother of a 20 month old I agree that play is essential in early development. However, in most places it is just not a priority. I teach in a district that is very close to being taken over by the state. The administration has cut time allowed for student lunches, specials, and recess and extended time in the major content areas. They have also begun requiring afterschool programs for students that scored below basic or basic on state test. I think that our administrators need to read this information and rethink these policies.

  12. This is an issue about which I feel very strongly. I left my last school, where I was teaching Kindergarten, because there was no recess, no PE, no nap time and no free play in a nearly 9 hour school day. This was a school in a low income neighborhood where closing the achievement gap was priority one. By the end of the year, the students were reading at amazing levels, and mastering first grade math, but they did not know how to share and had very little imagination. Many students were on a bus for 2 hours of the day, and therefore went home to eat, complete homework and go to sleep immediately. Due to the tight schedule, most had no time to play at home either. I do not believe that the high academic levels justified the lack of attention to the whole child. In the future I feel that these students will have severe problems relating with others when they are put in a different school or life setting.

  13. Play is essential. I teach in a half-day kindergarten program where I have the students only come for 2 hours and 50 minutes. In that short time we have 20 minutes recess daily and 20 minutes of either PE, music, or art daily. With transitions, I only have about 2 hours left in the day yet I still give them 20 to 25 minutes of choice time everyday. The minutes don’t seem to add up, but I take the leap every year and schedule that free choice time and I have yet to be disappointed. They still become strong readers, writers and problem solvers and I would put my students up against a full day no play time class any day! I am sure we would have equal or better performance.

  14. It is possible to incorporate play into learning. I taught Level 1 (Quartile 1) readers who it became obvious during classroom observation during read alouds, independent writing, and oral responses that many did not accurately hear the sounds within the words or associate the letters that represented their sounds. We began a phoneme game with gathering in a ring and tossing a ball from one to another which required the person receiving the ball to provide a word that included the targeted phoneme sound. My students loved our ‘Phoneme Toss’ game and made significant strides in recognizing the correct phoneme sound in words and their spelling improved as did their pronunciation. They displayed cooperation, provided help to students who were struggling, and enjoyed the physical movement involved in the game.

  15. Play is so very important for our students. I have found with my third grade students the more hands-on activities they do, the easier it is for them to remember the concepts. My only problem is the complaints from the parents. LOL! When aked what they did today, my students tell their parents they played during class today.

  16. Reading the responses on the importance of play, it is evident that the majority of writers believe in building in time throughout the day for free exploration or play activities. The challenge lies in how to manage this logistically. I agree with Nanci who believes it is possible to incorporate play into learning. Instead of play taking away from the required minutes of core teaching, teachers can develop activities that support and enhance the content through engaging, hands-on, cooperative, and fun learning experiences. Although it requires more planning and preparation, we owe it to our students to provide them with opportunities to explore, work with others, problem solve, expand their imaginations, and engage in active learning. This is the essence of educating the whole child.

  17. I agree that play time is sadly overlooked. Im my state/county there is such a focus on the “report card” and meeting AYP that we get caught up in teaching the standards and not too much on playing. I teach first grade and I find myself always worrying about getting the standard taught and not as much on making it fun. I know that we can do more “play” things and address the standards. I want to take the time to try to put more play into my schedule and still stay aligned with the standards.

  18. As a phys ed teacher I couldn’t agree more that play is an essential part of student development. I find that many of my students don’t know how to “play” because they have never had the opportunity to explore on their own. The schools that I work in do have play time and recess for students. They are given the opportunity to explore new games and create their own.

  19. I believe that PE is very important for all the above reasons as well as for the physical benefits. A few years ago our third grade level team decided to reserve our playground for an hour every Friday. We created different areas including a game area, an obsticle course, and a relay race. Now the forth and fifth grade teams do the same and our student’s health and weight levels have improved.

  20. This is a suggestion for Andrea Glasco–Reserve a few minutes at the end of the day for a time of reflection/evaluation. Each child tells the group something they learned that day. If you have a too large group, select a different group each day by asking children wearing velcroed shoes, etc. Make the category a surprise each day. Then what they or their classmates said is what they remember when they go home. You can get parents into the act by asking them to ask their child what they reported in circle. Congratulations for incorporating play into your program!

  21. Learning and play go hand in hand. We were designed to play. In the womb the fetus moves, stretchs, rolls. As soon as the child is able, s/he moves, stretchs, reaches, looks, gurgles….playfulness starts with the first “peek a boo” game with mom or dad. Play is purposeful as it is a precursor for real life. Running, jumping, catching, throwing, pretending to be superman or a bird in flight…if we can learn academics in a playful way, the brain remembers the information easily because it connects to joy and fun. If the body is engaged (eyes, mouth, ears, body) the brain remembers.

  22. As an administrator and proponent of play in early childhood, I find it challenging to convince parents who want their children to “excel.” The realization that play is important and essential in this process is often nonexistent. Most parents have been conditioned to want quantifiable results. I’d love to hear some feedback!

  23. Andrea Glasco – it’s funny you mention that, because I am a parent, and whenever I ask my five year old what he did in Kindergarten, all he says is “play”, lol. I’m not complaining though.
    Social skills enable kids to interact with society (regardless of their grades). We were at a birthday party yesterday, and while my seven year old daughter refused to participate in the group games (she has anxiety issues), my son jumped right in and participated fully – listening to and following along with the Mom who led the songs much like he would with his teachers at school. He’s in French Immersion and can already read in English, so I don’t think he’s suffering academically.
    What did you do at school today Buddy?
    Works for me 🙂

  24. Hurrah for play! All research points to the evidence that play is essential for learning at all ages. Here are some resources;
    1. Play; Stuart Brown
    2. The Playful Brain Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis
    AND my book
    Using Humor to Maximize Learning by Mary Kay Morrison
    More research available on my web site
    Join me in my passion for putting fun and play back into education.

  25. What we adults call play has been the intellectual development base for children since the beginning of human existence. The educational scientific value of toys and playgrounds is what needs to be understood. The educational need at this point in educational history is an understanding of how to create a natural play environment that facillatates the natural intellectual development of all children. The toys need to to be designed so that the child’s playing with the toy leads them to a physical to abstact intellecual understanding consciousness.
    Educators need to overcome their unscientific projection of the value of play.


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