Professionals Discuss Child Play As An Medium For Academic Learning

Child care professionals agree that “play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation and promoting language, cognition, and social competence”. Play is also anecdotally a natural activity for children to engage in that supports good physical and emotional development, contributes to a child’s underlying happiness, and reduces life stress levels.

While these ideas may be widely held among early childhood professionals, there is growing concern reflected in the academic literature about the reduction in child-directed, playful learning opportunities due to increasing academic pressures and families’ overscheduled lives.

Children’s museums focus on providing places where all families are welcome and learn together through play and thought-provoking hands-on activities. (For information and locations, visit Association of Children’s Museums at Members of the Children’s Museum Research Network recently helped conduct a study to examine how children’s museums position themselves around the concept of play.

49 senior-level museum professionals representing children’s museums across the country were interviewed about the value of children’s museums. Our findings indicated that while some of them strongly agreed about the importance of play, just 57 percent of the institutions have the word play in their mission statements (Letourneau & Rivera 2017). Although interactive play is heavily identified as a process for learning, there appears to be a lack of clear definitions about what play is and how to assess that play as part of a child’s learning experience.

These findings made us curious about what families in our local community think about play. Two studies were conducted at the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville Illinois, to examine caregivers’ perceptions about play and learning. They found that while caregivers highly value play to support children’s social and emotional learning, and the development of cognitive skills, they are less likely to associate play with academic learning and physical development.

Both focus group data and survey data point to concerns that caregivers expressed about their roles as facilitators of developmental play. Some focus group participants shared that while they felt comfortable taking children to places like children’s museums, they do not always feel confident as play partners. One mother of a 6-year-old described how her son was facing academic pressure, and the parent of a 9-year-old commented that some people tell her daughter she is too old to play. Finally, survey data revealed that busy family schedules and concerns about their child’s safety present barriers to play.

When we shared these findings with early childhood professionals during conference presentations, attendees tended to think about their own reservations about labeling activities as play, due to parent and academic tensions surrounding the concept of child play. Representatives from preschools, park districts, libraries, and child care centers shared anecdotes (additionally illuminated by the children’s museums professionals) demonstrating that early childhood professionals across sectors are experiencing conflict around defining play as a developmental concept. It appears that employing play concepts into developmentally appropriate preschool or daycare center STEM or STEAM curriculums has not been widely recognized as a way of effectively integrating play into an academic or organized setting

We believe it is important to recognize the tensions around play and learning and to engage in thoughtful conversation about defining play, and the value of play in various environments in order to arrive at clear understandings about the various roles and benefits of play in supporting children’s development and academic learning. These thoughtful discussions can help to codify beliefs and inform decisions about programming for young children. Part of this conversation should involve listening to parents, educators, and other caregivers to understand their beliefs, and then crafting messages to share with families about the many values of play in supporting their children’s development and early learning.



This article is part of a young child health and wellness series posted for the benefit of parents by Prime Time Early Learning Centers.  Prime Time is a family owned child care company that provides Infant Care, After Care, PreK, Prekindergarten, and Summer Camp programs for children from six weeks to 10 years of age in Paramus, Edgewater, Hoboken and East Rutherford New Jersey, and in Middletown (Wallkill) and Farmingdale (Babylon) New York.  See what parents have to say about their experience with Prime Time Early Learning Centers on Google and Yelp!

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