Should Play End With Preschool?

“Bing! Your son goes to Bing? How’d he get in?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in the last few weeks. My 3-year-old son Marco just started at Bing Nursery School a couple of weeks ago.

A lot of Palo Alto area parents would kill, or so it seems, to get their kids into Bing. “About once a week, a parent loses his or her cool and is rude on the phone to Svetlana Stanislavskaya, Bing’s enrollment director.” (See this article.)

Bing is the Stanford University “Lab School,” and like Stanford, far more kids apply than can possibly go there. I’ve heard from someone (is it true???) that its waiting list is 4,000, and the school enrolls only 400 students!!! How can a nursery school be in such high demand? The irony is that Bing is far from the Stanford of preschools. There’s hardly a book in sight there. Instead, it’s entirely play-based, so Bing is more like the Chico State of preschools. Party school, baby!

I’m very skeptical of Palo Alto (CA) area parents’ interest in play. It reminds me of my single days when my male friends and I took up salsa dancing. Did we love dancing, or did we just consider it a means to another much more important end?

While parents here might be extremely driven to get their kids into a play-based preschool, they certainly don’t want them to play after preschool. Have you really looked at the neighborhoods around here recently? Where the heck are the kids? Where are the games of tag, pickup basketball games, etc.? OK, many are at organized sports practices and games, but those are adult-controlled, so kids aren’t engaging in “free play,” where they decide what to do and how.

From the point of view of an old kid like me who played outside every day thirty-something years ago, Palo Alto and surrounding communities are utterly B-O-R-I-N-G.

By and large, Palo Alto area parents see play for toddlers as a means to another end – intellectual and social development in the school years. A number of developmental psychology studies, most done at lab schools like Bing over the years, do indicate that play in the preschool years gives children an advantage in academic achievement in school in later years.

Parents around here just assume then, I guess, that the benefits of play abruptly end at the age of five, when children enter kindergarten. Thus, they can just drop their kids in Bing or a Bing wannabe (there are many in the area) for two years and feel like they have filled their kids’ quota for play.

Likewise, I quit salsa dance lessons six years ago in the very month I met the woman who would become my wife. Unfortunately, just as the benefits of salsa dancing go well beyond picking up babes (e.g. I’d be in better shape if I were salsa dancing now), the benefits of play go well beyond preparing kids for academic achievement in elementary school.

Many psychologists and medical researchers have written about how play continues to yield important benefits to children well beyond the preschool years. For example, see the recent American Academy of Pediatrics’ report entitled, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” David Elkind’s “Power of Play,” or Paul Donahue’s “Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters.”

These writers point out how free play beyond the preschool years yields benefits in creativity, social skills, leadership skills, problem solving, happiness, and physical fitness.

I don’t think we need Bing-like play-based lab elementary schools. However, I do hope that parents realize that, when their kids move on from play-based preschools like Bing to academic elementary schools, they have a responsibility to keep play as an important part of their children’s lives. That means letting them play in their neighborhoods around their homes much like they were able to play in preschool.

Certainly, over time, they should spend more time on academics and less on play, but play, and I mean *free* play, should always remain a prominent aspect of kids’ lives. An 10-year-old who can’t go outside on his own and help organize a game of tag or pickup basketball is as deficient as a 4-year-old who can’t recite his ABCs or count to ten.

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4 Responses to Should Play End With Preschool?

  1. Gudrun says:

    thanks for the post – both my kids went to Bing, and I am a graduate as well. We struggle with the issue of unstructured time during the week to allow free play – the after school activities are chosen for the ability to foster play, but as a dual-working-parent household, the amount of hours left in the day for free play shrinks. To balance this, we severely limit TV time (the study I was part of when at Bing), own almost every kind of self-powered, wheeled transportation device and spend lots of time together as a family on the weekends. The beauty of living in Silicon Valley is that there is so much to offer my kids, the downfall being at what cost to their ability to create their own play.

  2. Yeah, I’ll admit it – I’m one of the parents who really hopes my daughter can go to Bing, but it’s only because so many of our friends have raved about it. Otherwise, I would’ve thought it was silly to get so hyped up about a pre-school. Then I saw it and was wowed by the vast amount of land each classroom has, and my daughter so loves the outdoors, animals and music, all of which are a big part of their curriculum. So we’ll see. I’ll be bummed if she can’t go there, but she also has a pretty good time at our park and it’s not like she’d know she was missing anything.

    As for grade school, that’s what concerns me most. I keep hearing about recess being cut out, heaps of after-school homework, and more organized activities. These things are major detractors in our ability to encourage outdoor play. There’s all of this talk about bad food in the schools leading to childhood obesity and early-onset diabetes (which also concerns me – I applaud what they’ve done in the Berkeley schools with getting rid of soda machines and such), but what about the lack of exercise? I think that’s just as bad a culprit.

    I think about my own life as an adult – I’ve always struggled with getting regular exercise. I think it’s essential to learn that habit at a young age, regardless of whether it’s free play or organized activities, but free play teaches much more than just physical fitness; it develops creativity and other skills. We used to make up all kinds of fun games as kids when playing outdoors. We’d be gone for hours. I’m amazed to this day that my parents weren’t worried sick about us, but I learned a lot through that.

  3. Simon says:

    Mike — you say “I don

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    I guess the operative word in what I wrote is “need.” Sure, I can see a lot of advantages in the sort of school you’re describing, Simon. However, I don’t think we “need” them in the way that I think we need kids to play freely somehow, somewhere during the preschool years *and* beyond.