Play’s Unfortunate Reputation

How dare he play at school?!?  photo:

NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series on the value of play, by Robert Hess. The second article is entitled, Play and Learning, and the third article is entitled, Play Broadens and Deepens the Mind.

Where did we get the notion that play and learning are incompatible?

Consider the following widely held beliefs: “Play is the opposite of work” and “learning takes hard work.” If true, these would entail that to maximize learning, we must minimize play: The less we play, the more we will learn, and the more we play, the less we will learn. I will call this the “No-Play Dogma.”

The No-Play Dogma, or something akin to it, appears to be at the core of our educational system and philosophy. It is widely accepted as fact, almost trivially true, by most educators, policymakers and, sadly, also parents. The basic assumption is that time spent outside the classroom has little or no educational value. Free time, time to play at will, is regarded as dispensable, a small price, if any, for greater academic achievement.

Though the decline in play admittedly has other causes as well (e.g., more households with single-parents or two working parents, increased street violence, more traffic hazards, digital entertainment), the No-Play Dogma does strike me as the chief culprit. It is also the root cause that is most easily remedied‒because it exists only in people’s minds. In an upcoming article, I’ll present some scientific evidence that play does, indeed, aid learning.The No-Play Dogma is not new. It has been at the core of educational philosophy in America‒and, for that matter, most everywhere else in the civilized world‒since children first sat silently in neat rows, while a teacher, ruler in hand, was pacing up and down in front of the blackboard intent upon filling their “blank” minds with “valuable” facts. This should perhaps not be surprising, since the first premise of the No-Play Dogma‒play is the opposite of work‒is at the heart of our Puritan work ethic in general: We work hard, and then, if there is time left, we play hard. But play and work don’t mix. They are opposites. Or so we think.

With the rise of psychological behaviorism in the early 20th century, the No-Play Dogma effectively became institutionalized. Educational behaviorists came up with the brilliant idea that, like lab rats, children can be taught to display certain desirable behavior‒including learning‒and to refrain from certain undesirable behavior‒including playing‒all through a simple punishment and reward system. If the academic performance of our children fails to meet expectations, they must be punished so they will study harder and, as a result, learn more. Conversely, if the academic performance of our children meets expectations, they must to be rewarded to encourage more of the same “good” learning behavior. Play never enters into the equation. After all, rats don’t play (or do they?).

Though largely discredited today, this overly simplistic, mechanistic view of the human mind continues to underwrite much of what is dear to the hearts of American educators today: testing and grading. Tests and grades have become virtually synonymous with school. One cannot exist without the other. And play is seen as inimical to both. Just ask your children.

In this Machiavellian world of tests and grades, play is at best tolerated as a necessary evil that should be kept to the bare minimum. To the extent that it has any role in education at all today, play is just another weapon in the arsenal of our punishment and reward system. Nothing illustrates this better than the longstanding tradition in American schools to cancel recess, often a child’s only bright spot in an otherwise dreary, long school day, to punish children for minor infractions (even when such misbehavior is largely caused by a lack of play time in the first place).

Since the 1990’s, the No-Play Dogma has risen to new, unseen heights. Play has effectively been declared the enemy of education. With academic performance of U.S. students slipping in comparison to students in other countries, the trend today is towards even more academics and even less play.

Scrambling to meet the standardized testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools are now testing more frequently and rigorously than ever before, while at the same time cutting back time and resources for recess, athletics, music and other “non-essential” activities. A survey of 15,000 school districts conducted in 1999 found that 40 percent of public elementary schools were either eliminating recess or cutting back on it or considering one or the other. And that was ten years ago!

Lest our children should “waste” their time playing after school, children from kindergarten age are, as America’s leading voice for progressive education, Alfie Kohn, put it so poignantly, expected to “work a second shift” at home, completing copious homework assignments, much of it meaningless busy work. Often, this leaves little or no time for children to freely pursue their own interests when they return home from school.

Even preschoolers are now fair game in the hunt for academic success, with early childhood reading and math programs on the rise. The basic assumption, for which there is little or no scientific support, is that starting academics earlier and playing less will do no harm in the short run and will pay off in the long run.

All in all, a child’s natural impulse to play is now perceived as an obstacle, a problem that must be nipped in the bud early on, lest it should grow into an even bigger problem down the road. If the past is any indication of the future, we may well reach a point someday when there will be no more time allotted to recess, athletics or music at school whatsoever, when homework and other structured activities will have crowded out all free play.

This frightening reality should give pause, if not to teachers and administrators, then at least to us parents. For deep down, every parent knows that play is a normal, indispensable part of childhood.

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