Debate on playtime's value grows as more states fund preschool

Researchers have been increasingly recognizing play as crucial to a child's social and emotional development and at schools like Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Va., preschools have been incorporating structured play into their programs.
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

On a recent Thursday, 5-year-old Estefani Lovo Rivera took charge of a make-believe hair salon in her preschool classroom at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington County. Wielding a plastic fork as a hairbrush, dispatching customer after customer with a certain cool efficiency, she looked around the room for more classmates to entice.

"You have to come today," the budding stylist said. "Tomorrow we're closed!"

To the untrained eye, such play appears to be nothing more than a distraction from the real letters-and-numbers work of school. But research shows that it might be an essential part in determining these children's social and emotional makeup as adults.

As Estefani and the children buzzing around her -- one taking hair appointments over a telephone, another pretending to curl a client's hair with an eggbeater -- spun their scenario, they were developing the roots of empathy and the capacity to take turns, negotiate with peers and understand how their behavior affects people.

"Play is problem-solving," said Judy Apostolico-Buck, Arlington's early childhood education coordinator. "It's really critical life skills."

The debate among early childhood educators over whether precious school hours should be spent on play has simmered for years. But it is intensifying as preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, once the province of child-care centers, is increasingly embraced by public school systems to teach students the skills they need to be successful in kindergarten. That is especially true for poor and minority children and those who speak English as a second language.

"If we are to prevent the achievement gap and develop a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, early learning programs are going to have to be better integrated with the K-12 system," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday at a convention of the nation's largest early childhood organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Locally and across the nation, time for play has been increasingly squeezed out of kindergarten and first grade as schools, bent on raising student achievement, especially among poor and minority students, have focused on literacy and math skills for children at ever-younger ages. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure that all children are proficient in math, reading and writing by 2014.

That proficiency is measured on tests, but the far-reaching effects of play don't show up in answers to multiple-choice questions. They show up in life.

Research has shown that by 23, people who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.

"It's not that direct instruction caused delinquency," said Larry Schweinhart, director of the HighScope Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., which conducted the study and developed the play-based curriculum that Arlington uses in all 31 of its preschool classes for low-income children. "But it wasn't preventing it. It wasn't giving kids an opportunity to develop socially."

A more recent study showed that certain kinds of fantasy play, in which students plan the roles they're going to fill, have a measurable effect on children's ability to control their impulses. That skill is more closely correlated to academic success in kindergarten than intelligence is.

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