Play vs Academics: A False Dichotomy

An argument is brewing in the preschool scene.  In one corner, you have those arguing for more academics to give children that head start that might correct the troubles of high-school drop-outs and low test scores.  They claim that children rise to the occasion and show that they are capable of more than we’ve been asking. 

In the other corner, you’ll find those who say play is disappearing from the cultural landscape of America and that its absence is a contributor to many childhood maladies such as obesity, ADHD, and declining social skills.  They say that children “rising to the occasion” are really only performing splinter skills , which are more closely aligned with party tricks than with actual learning.

Certainly, both camps can make compelling arguments.  But each time I read an article giving voice to the two sides, I find myself thinking: these aren’t mutually exclusive points of view.  The notion that a child’s education can either be playful or academic seems to be creating an unfortunate and false dichotomy. 

It seems to me that setting play and academics at odds with each other is pitting the method against the goal.  It’s not an either/or choice, it’s a means and an end.

The term “academic” has come to mean “formal, direct instruction”, and in that sense, the two modes are different.  But when “academic” is viewed as scholarly and giving rise to study and learning, it easily goes hand in hand with a play-based education structure.

To be sure, often the two camps are really at odds over what expectations are developmentally appropriate.  But if we’re talking about developmentally appropriate learning outcomes, truly, academics can be taught and learned through a play-based curriculum.  In fact, in many ways, I believe that the format of play and experience can teach and prepare young children for concepts that are more advanced than could be taught in a formal, conventional way.  Here’s an example.

You would (hopefully) never consider plopping a multiplication worksheet down in front of a preschooler, followed by an explanation of the basic principles and procedures of algebra.  However, I know a phenomenal preschool teacher who recently gave her students a similar challenge,  but in an authentic, playful way.

As this teacher sat down to snack with a group of her students, she noted that there were five people at the table and each person could have 3 crackers.  She then asked the children at the table how many crackers she should put on the plate to serve.  One child enthusiastically answered, “Three!”  So the teacher placed three crackers on the plate and set it on the table.  The children looked around at five hungry faces, trying to figure out where they went wrong.  As the gears turned in their minds, one child suddenly shouted, “Fifteen!  We need fifteen!”  Not bad for a “non-academic” school.

A quality play-based learning environment is not just a glorified birthday party.  Each activity, each nook and cranny, and every loose part is arranged and made available with specific developmental objectives in mind.  Ask a teacher and he or she will be able to tell you, “That builds fine motor skills for writing.  That promotes sorting, which is the basis of the set theory of mathematics. This will help with phonological awareness, which leads to literacy.   Here we invite creativity and problem-solving while over there they are using their language and interpersonal skills.” 

It’s those foundational experiences that allow children to learn advanced concepts more easily and more thoroughly.  I worry that in our effort to get ahead in education, we’re simply skipping these foundational pieces so often learned through play.  It’s like being in a rush to construct a tall building, so we decide to forget about the foundation (nobody really sees that anyway) and jump right to the first floor.  It might look OK at first, but eventually we get to the second or third floor and suddenly we realize that things aren’t solid, and we find ourselves slipping.  I really think many of the academic problems we see in primary grades are not because the children didn’t start formal instruction early enough, but because they don’t have enough foundational experience for that formal instruction to make any lasting connections.

I guess what bothers me most is that setting play and academics at odds with each other often implies that one is for feel-good fun and the other is for real learning.  That one is just daycare and the other is school.  In reality, a play-based education is not only more responsive and developmentally appropriate for young children, but it also teaches them not only how to answer, but how to think.  Not just to recite, but to inquire.  Not simply to complete worksheets, but to build connections.  Academic content isn’t just taught, it’s meaningfully constructed.

Tune in next week, when we’ll discuss how to spot a quality play-based preschool program. ***Editorial change: We’ll have that discussion this Friday!

Top photo by Anissa Thompson.

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26 responses to “Play vs Academics: A False Dichotomy

  1. Great post and couldn’t be more timely for us – we toured our first school Mon. and our area’s huge preschool info. night is tonight. I can’t wait for the follow up post as that is info. I can really use! The reminder that a good teacher should be able to point out the developmental benefits of specific play activities is a great start. Thanks.

  2. I totally agree with your article and it is a discussion that is heating up in our school district. Especially now that we have full time kindergarten.
    To me play-based learning in the early years is the same as team-work when we (as adults) are in our professions. You have to know how to get along, solve problems, find and use resources, share and be creative.
    In my goal setting and planning I follow this quote by Stephen Covey “Start with the end in mind”

    • notjustcute

      A perfect quote for intentionally teaching through play! There are often unplanned and seredipitous discoveries made, but you also have to start with at least one learning objective in mind. Just as you state, play-based learning environments can provide all the same learning objectives (within a dev. appropriate framework) as an “academic” environment, but with the added benefit of those creative and social benefits you mentioned. I worry that the discussion to get rid of play in schools is less about what children are learning and more about the perspective and level of understanding of some of the adults.

  3. My daughter is 2-1/2 years away from enrolling in preschool, so this post and the one on Friday will give me some good ideas on what to look for. Maybe I can save some questions to ask schools and teachers for future use.

  4. Love these statements: “It’s those foundational experiences that allow children to learn advanced concepts more easily and more thoroughly. I worry that in our effort to get ahead in education, we’re simply skipping these foundational pieces so often learned through play. It’s like being in a rush to construct a tall building, so we decide to forget about the foundation (nobody really sees that anyway) and jump right to the first floor. It might look OK at first, but eventually we get to the second or third floor and suddenly we realize that things aren’t solid, and we find ourselves slipping. ”

    I agree. If we skip the foundational stuff then we’re looking at wobbly and possibly toppling learners later.

  5. Leslie

    I agree, it’s simplistic to think that play cannot be touching academic objectives. At the preschool where I teach, virtually each piece of play during the day touches an academic objectives. The children have a wonderful time, we see amazing (sometimes!) social growth, and they do leave with a good foundation to enter kindergarten.

  6. “But when “academic” is viewed as scholarly and giving rise to study and learning, it easily goes hand in hand with a play-based education structure.” This is a fantastic (and very true statement). I love this entry.

  7. Thank you so much for linking the two! Why does everyone think that just because kids “play” doesn’t mean that they’re not learning? I’ve commented on here only once before, that I can remember, but I’m so glad that you see the value in play, especially for young ones. As a former kindergarten teacher, I just hope that my own babies will be able to play and learn side by side in their classroom when they’re old enough to attend school. Looking forward to Friday!

  8. Yay for bumping up your follow-up post to Friday. Now I’ll have the info. in time for my preschool tours next week.

  9. Finally, it looks like the public is paying more attention to the benefits of “play”. What is frequently overlooked is the importance of MOVEMENT in play. Splashing in a puddle, climbing over a log, packing and throwing a snowball, rolling down a hill – ALL of these activities are pre-academic in nature, and all of them give the child a head start in being able to absorb and integrate reading and writing and other skills that we tend to identify as “academic.” My friend, Carol Kranowitz and I recently published a book called, “Growing an In-Sync Child,” which includes a selection of activities that many may view as “play,” but are designed to lay the foundation for future “academic” learning.

    I agree that there is no reason that learning can’t be fun. In fact, it should be!!

    • notjustcute

      Great point about the importance of movement. We talk so much in child development about sensory play and sensory development, but the proprioceptive and vestibular senses are too easily left out! Thanks for commenting, Joye. I look forward to reading your book!

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  12. Chelle

    Unfortunately, in my experience, play-based preschools are NOT making every play moment a chance for learning. Having worked in a daycare that touted itself as a “preschool” I know that the kids weren’t learning anything at all–not a single child in this “educational learning environment” could even write his or her name at five years old. In my area, at least, this seems to be the way it is at all play-based preschools, even the ones that cost upwards of $15,000 per year. I send my son to an academic preschool, if you want to call it that. There is heavy focus on phonics starting at age 2 so that by age 4.5 the children are reading with ease. Not just reading a few memorized words, but able to sit down and sound out any book you give them. The foundation is built slowly in the 2’s and 3’s classes and by the 4’s they are ready to read. However, the school day is only 2.5 hours and they only spend two 10 minute time slots on phonics and worksheets. The rest of the time is more “play-based” learning. You are right, they are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, as I have said, the play-based preschools I have been in contact with are all play with absolutely no learning going on at all–so it seems to be all or nothing. In the cases I’ve seen, the teacher has been nothing more than a babysitter and I wouldn’t pay $15,000 for a baby-sitter, so I would never send my kids to these schools.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for your comment, Chelle. I think you touched on exactly why this polarization is troubling to me. Those who want to assert themselves as “play-based” pull their alphabet charts of the walls, while those who want to be “academic” get rid of their play kitchens. Either extreme is wrong in my opinion. I believe that “play-based” refers to play in a variety of forms. There needs to be adequate amounts of free, child-directed play, scaffolded by good teachers. But there are also opportunities for organized learning and even *gasp* some direct instruction in appropriate amounts and delivered in a playful way. Finding that balance has been the topic of such books as Much More than the ABCs by Judith Schickendanz and Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children by Susan B Neuman, Carol Copple, and Sue Bredekamp. I would be curious to know if your son’s school promotes phonics at age two or phonemic and phonological awareness at age two. Though somewhat similar, one seems much more develomentally appropriate than the other. All that said, I do have to say in defense of the play-based schools you mentioned, while they may not show obvious direct instruction, there is learning going on in the play. The extent to which the children are able to gain from that play depends largely on the teachers, the way they prepare the environment and support the children in their play. Ask the teachers to explain their philosophy and their objectives for the activities. If they say the activity is just “fun” or “cute”, they may not be maximizing the learning outcome of the play. But they may have some great insights and motivations that would surprise you. Thanks for reading and adding a very valid point to the discussion.

    • Jackie

      I’m glad you received a clear response from the writer of this article. My response would be that the point of this article’s discussion is that learning is occurring during the play (and, by the way, it happens after the play, as well, as the child learns and explores and assimilates information throughout the days/weeks and even longer).

      In my opinion, the teacher’s interaction can enhance that learning, and it is always up to the teachers to communicate where they see learning happening.

      Just because a child hasn’t learned to write his/her name in preschool doesn’t mean the child hasn’t been learning. Writing a name is a skill and doesn’t necessarily demonstrate understanding of how language works between people.

      Strong opinions like yours are part of what led me to pulling my child out of his preschool–children were being pressured to write their names when they clearly had no interest, being excluded from snack time until they made an attempt. As an early childhood educator myself, I saw children feeling anxious and humiliated over this ‘simple’ task, day after day. I pulled him out because I could see that the teachers, instead of knowing the children better and engaging in conversations with children and with parents, were responding to perceived pressures to present a more ‘academic’ or performance-oriented program.

      In my opinion, ‘academic’ becomes another term for performance, but, the only performances we should see from young children are the ones they create themselves, putting on costumes, setting up the seats, selling pretend tickets, and doing their own show. They do not learn best when asked to show what they know.


  13. Do moms ever put their toddler in front of a mountain of toys and say “Okay, honey, you play while Mommy makes dinner!”? Coming from a quality play-based program I can tell you that’s not how it works at preschool. Yes, learning happens with that child, but higher learning comes from adult questioning and interaction we educators call “scaffolding”. As children play and construct learning the teacher is there making observations and asking questions. Using their higher-level thinking and reasoning to bring that child up a few steps on that cognitive ladder. I believe it’s there that lies the difference between “play-time” and “play-based learning”. Btw I wanted to say thanks, Mandy! You know how few compliments and thank-you’s a teacher receives. This post made my day! 🙂

  14. Exactly – I interviewed Elena Bodrova, Vygotsky researcher and co-author of Tools of the Mind, and describe what makes a high-quality play-based preschool in this post.

    You’re right on about play-based learning! (I also love the book Einstein Never Used Flashcards to prove this point.)

    Melissa 🙂

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for including the link! I’m a fan of Vygotsky and think the Tools of the Mind has a lot of interesting pieces. I’m excited to read your interview. The book you mentioned is a great one too!

    • Hi Gourmet Mom:As much as Big C likes brie, I was thinking you should go with that one. However, I think you'd just go &qu;tonutso" decorating that tree…so…final answer… TREE

  15. Pingback: Little Busy Bodies: Education Reform: Why do we trust politicians with your child's education?

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