February 02, 2015

NAEYC and KaBOOM! Discuss the Importance of Play in Education & Cities

Children playing

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and KaBOOM! are working together to help kids get the balanced and active play they need to thrive. Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of NAEYC, and Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, discuss the importance of play in education and the positive impact it has on communities.

Why is play important to education?

Rhian Evans Allvin: Neuroscience has confirmed that learning begins at birth and the period from birth to age five includes rapid brain development–setting the foundation for cognitive, social/emotional, language and fine and gross motor skills. In order to achieve the academic excellence and equity that is essential–we must invest in our young children during this window of explosive development.

Young children engage in various kinds of play, such as physical play, object play, pretend or dramatic play, constructive play, and games with rules. Play gives them opportunities to develop physical competence and enjoyment of the outdoors, understand and make sense of their world, interact with others, express and control emotions, develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Research shows the links between play and foundational capacities such as memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills, and success in school.

Children of all ages love to play. From infancy, children act on the world around them for the pleasure of seeing what hap¬pens; for example, repeatedly dropping a spoon on the floor or pulling the cat’s tail. Around age two, children begin to demonstrate symbolic use of objects–for instance, picking up a shell and pre¬tending to drink as from a cup–at least when they have had opportunities to observe others engaging in such make-believe behavior.

From such beginnings, children begin to engage in more mature forms of dramatic play, in which by the age of 3–5 they may act out specific roles, interact with one another in their roles, and plan how the play will go. Such play is influential in developing self-regulation, as children are highly motivated to stick to the roles and rules of the play, and thus grow in the ability to inhibit their impulses, act in coordination with others, and make plans. High-level dramatic play produces documented cognitive, social, and emotional ben¬efits.

Darell Hammond: As global competition increases, it is imperative that children develop a skill-set relevant to today's workforce and are able to approach challenges with creative solutions to successfully navigate our complex, ever-changing world. Critical thinking and collaboration are integral to the jobs of the future, and balanced and active play helps kids develop these 21st century skills.

Unfortunately, however, play is disappearing in our schools. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of children surveyed had little to no recess in their school day. That's nearly one in three kids. At KaBOOM!, we believe play should be part of a well-rounded school day. That is, kids need to read, write, do math, as well as practice problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity. We know play also helps children adjust to the school setting, enhances their learning readiness, and indirectly contributes to children learning more hard skills in school by mitigating behavioral problems and increasing academic engagement.

We are thrilled to partner with NAEYC, to raise awareness about the importance of play in early childhood education. As part of this commitment, we are granting Imagination Playgrounds to 10 NAEYC member sites. This unique and innovative play product will help transform regular classrooms into playspaces that encourage learning, social development, critical thinking, movement, and fun!

How does play benefit kids?

Rhian: We see a wonderful interplay of domains as children play–they demonstrate their approaches to learning, they can engage with others in a social relationship, they attempt things that are challenging, yet achievable–which enhances their self-esteem. Children express emotions as they play. There’s also an integration of math, literacy, science, and other academic areas as children play–constructing, classifying, sorting, seriating, quantifying, and practicing other skills. Physical play supports the development of gross and fine motor skills. Who knew that a classic game of Simon Says is actually building the same inhibitory control that is needed to follow academic instructions later in school? Research now demonstrates the development of self-regulation or executive function in sociodramatic (imaginative, pretend) play leads to higher achievement–a very important benefit!

Darell: At KaBOOM!, we believe that the well-being of society begins with the well-being of children. This is why we’re such big advocates of balanced and active play, which is essential–and elemental–to enable children to thrive.

Just as a healthy diet balances proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other nutrients, a balanced “play diet” should include a mix of all kinds of play, because different types have different benefits. For example, play-dough creations, blocks, and make-believe spark the imagination and teach problem-solving skills. Running, jumping, and climbing get legs moving and hearts pumping. And exploring playgrounds with families or playing hide-and-seek with friends helps kids learn to work together, collaborate, and share. A balance of play means active minds, active bodies, and active together to realize all of play’s benefits.

What impact can play have on cities?

Darell: Across the United States, cities and communities are engaged in a fierce contest for the future. They are competing for businesses, economic development, and jobs. They are competing for residents–for families who will breathe energy and enterprise into their neighborhoods. The fact is, for communities to thrive, they need to ensure that all of their residents are happy, healthy, and contributing to their community’s overall vitality. One essential ingredient in the recipe is a renewed commitment to fostering family-friendly, kid-friendly environments that allow young people to get their bodies moving and their minds engaged no matter where they are.

All families deserve to live in a safe community with ample job opportunities, great schools and abundant opportunities to play, but we currently have inequitable distribution of services, resources, and opportunities for low-income families. This inequity serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty that threatens our nation's economic future. Creating kid-friendly, family-friendly cities filled with play is a competitive advantage for cities to attract and retain residents, and it directly impacts the kids that need it most.

Rhian: The provision of family-friendly, kid-friendly environments is a hallmark of sustainable communities. All families want to live in areas where there are many opportunities for children to play outdoors in areas that are safe and conducive to big body play, using their imaginations and equipment that is tailored to their needs. That’s the kind of community I want to live in–and fortunately I do!