Play In The Land of Academics

Living as an afterschool educator and observing children at play for many years, I have observed how the amount and emphasis on play has changed. Science states play and physical activity represent an important part of education and benefits the growing and active brain. In trying to figure out the history of play and education a question came to mind. What caused test scores and grades become more important than the rest of life's activities?

The history of standardized testing started in 1838 therefore testing in some form has constituted a part of our education system for a long time. Testing shifted in form and function in 1965 as the concern for children having the ability to compete with other countries became important in a cold war world. Another change occurred in 2002 when No Child Left Behind was adopted and paved the way for every state to perform High Stakes Testing.

My practice in elementary care started in 1994. At that time the children participating in our program utilized most of their time for play. The children organized sports outside, climbed trees, played tag and chase games, Ping-Pong, swings and Frisbee golf. The children experienced freedom to move inside or outside at will. Inside children would play board games, paint, use clay, cook, bake, draw, and read. Homework and discussion about homework was minimal as parents and children together viewed our time together as time off from school and time to develop another part of self. Some children practiced homework but on their own schedule and the parents created the expectations for completion. Very few children at this time participated in extracurricular activities like dance or Taekwondo.

The first time I noticed a change in the expectations for homework was in 2002. I was practicing in a different program and the expectation from parents about homework was quite different. More demand existed from parents for educators to be responsible for completion and accuracy of homework. The amount of homework the children encountered each day increased especially for the children in fourth grade and above. Those children verbally expressed an anxiety about how much work was required to be completed each day and a regret for not owning time for play. These same children verbally expressed an internal battle about managing homework and making the adults in their life happy while making themselves happy and fulfilled by playing. More children in our program left early many days a week to participate in extracurricular activities related to sports, academics, dance, and martial arts.

Through conversation and collaboration the educators were able to educate parents on the value in play and the children experiencing some time away from school responsibilities. Our program invited children to utilize their skills, curiosity, and abilities to create and have fun playing. Homework became a more voluntary process again and the parents determined the ground rules for completion and accuracy. This time represented the beginning of a new distraction to children's play, the computer.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the program I most recently have practiced with elementary children. The emphasis on homework has increased and the addition of children in Kindergarten having weekly homework assignments exists new to the mix. The demand for home work completion has risen to an all time high and reform required two years of effort to educate parents about the need for balance and for children to experience time to apply their wealth of knowledge through play. The access to electronics constitutes a distraction as children utilize computers in school, at home, and everywhere except in our program. Many children experience difficulty becoming engaged in activities that do not feature an electronic component. The amount of extracurricular and adult directed activities has increased. Most children leave the program during the week for some type of educational, social, sports or enrichment program.

The end result personifies a lack of unstructured play for children, a time for children to experiment physically and socially. The pendulum appears to be shifting direction. Many parents are calling for a return to playtime and for changes access to recess. Additional recess embodies a good first step toward a return to balance. Academia in the past included the whole person mind and body with the physical self viewed just as important as the mental self. How can early childhood educators promote more unstructured playtime for children? Time for the school of applied knowledge, the time to climb a tree, play tag, talk with a friend, play checkers, paint a picture, make a mud pie, chase a butterfly and kick a ball.

 What were your homework, extracurricular and play experiences in school?

 Did those experiences influence the way you practice as an educator?