Learning - KaBOOM! News

Summer may be over, but that doesn't mean kids should stop playing. Play builds active minds as much as it builds active bodies, and by playing together, children gain social competence that is vital to their development and growth. In short, play helps to build the 21st-century skills that children will need to thrive in the workplace and to navigate our complex, ever-changing world.  

These five studies illuminate just how integral play is to children's learning, achievement, and success:

  1. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, peer play has a direct positive concurrent relationship on learning outcomes, particularly for preschool children exhibiting problem behavior. 
  2. The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported that in an academic environment, play helps children adjust to the school setting, thereby fostering school engagement, and enhances children’s learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills.
  3. Pediatrics also published the results of a 2009 study that found play and recess may increase children’s capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are offered drastic change in activity.
  4. A 2011 review of 50 studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that increased physical activity during the school day can help children's attention, classroom behavior, and achievement test scores. Eighty percent of principals who participated in a 2010 Gallup Survey reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement.
  5. As a result of a German educational reform movement, some German kindergartens threw out their play-based curricula in order to become “centers for cognitive achievement.” Research comparing students who continued to attend play-based kindergartens instead of the so-called cognitive centers found that at age 10, play-enriched children performed better in reading and mathematics, were better adjusted socially and emotionally, and excelled in creativity, and oral expression.

How has play helped your child learn?


As a critical driver of positive educational outcomes for kids, play will be a topic of discussion with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Aspen Institute CEO, Walter Isaacson, at the inaugural Playful City USA Leaders’ Summit later this month in Baltimore. Learn more.

Ready to wallow? On June 29, the World Forum Foundation is encouraging children around the world to get muddy in honor of International Mud Day. We take a moment to pay tribute to this ooey gooey carpet-staining substance.

Mud play benefits children in five crucial ways:

  1. Squish, squash: Mud play offers unique tactile, sensory experiences that are vital to a child's developing brain.
  2. As children run mud through fingers, scoop mud from containers, and create mud pies, they develop their hand-eye coordination and learn about cause and effect.
  3. Hold the hand sanitizer: Research shows that kids who play in dirt (including very wet dirt) develop stronger immune systems that can pave the way for better health throughout their adult lives.
  4. Mud is also good for the heart, and not just because of all the cardio exercise that it inspires. A 2010 study from Northwestern University found that exposure to the germs and pathogens found in dirt can reduce a child’s risk of cardiovascular inflammation in adulthood.
  5. Mud makes kids happy. Well, that much is obvious, but according to the National Wildlife Federation, studies have shown that making “direct contact with soil… has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and facilitate learning.”

Of course, kids don’t need any prodding to get outside and get muddy. Share photos of your muddy kid by posting to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #mymuddykid. We’ll feature our favorites on Facebook and our blog.

Image via let the children play. Check out this wonderful blog for mud recipes and so much more!

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama made the case for expanding access to high-quality preschool opportunities, arguing that “in states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children… studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”

We know that already, but the question lingers: What does “high-quality” mean? Does a high-quality preschool look like this?

Or like this?

Manhattan mother Nicole Imprescia would likely argue the former—in 2011, she sued her child's preschool because, in her words, "The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom." Imprescia worried that all this play was ruining her tot's chances of getting into an Ivy League college.

Meanwhile, many early childhood educators emphatically believe that preschool should be one big playroom—and don’t forget about an adjoining outdoor playspace!  A recent study by Oregon State University found that the key social and behavioral skills that play develops -- such as paying attention and persisting with a task -- are better predictors of whether or not a child completes college than his or her academic abilities.

Educators like Nancy Carlsson Paige worry that policy mandates, like the Common Core state standards, are already squeezing play out of the preschool curriculum by “causing a pushdown of academic skills to 3, 4 and 5 year olds that used to be associated with first-graders through third-graders.”

A teacher in a Brooklyn kindergarten that has adopted the Common Core standards told The New York Post they are “causing a lot of anxiety.” After watching three different children break down sobbing in the course of one week, the teacher said, “Kindergarten should be happy and playful. It should be art and dancing and singing and learning how to take turns. Instead, it’s frustrating and disheartening.”

Washington Post guest columnist Deborah Kenny wonders if the problem is inherent in standards themselves or in how they are implemented. She points to one teacher who taught his kindergarteners “gravity, anatomy, speed, addition and subtraction, and measurement,” which are all included in the Common Core standards, by building a “life-size paper model of how humans would need to be designed in order to fly.”

Either way, Kenny argues that the “right curriculum for kindergarten” is, without a doubt, play. As we begin to invest more in “high-quality” early childhood education, let’s make sure that “quality” doesn’t mean filling out worksheets at a desk. We know that parents like Imprescia just want what’s best for their children. Let’s listen to the research and make sure that “quality” includes copious amounts of active, creative, sensory, and social play—in the mud and beyond. 

What does a quality preschool mean to you?

Top photo via iStockphoto. Bottom photo via Shawn Perez (cc).

Would you send your child to a school that gives its students hammers instead of standardized tests? Brightworks, a K-12 school in San Francisco, takes experiential learning to a whole new level. As it proudly proclaims on its website: "Our students fly kites, experiment with wind tunnels, and build turbines."

Founded by renowned tinkerer Gever Tulley, the school abides by the philosophy that tinkering and play are at the heart of learning. Student achievement is measured not by testing, but by exploration, expression, and exposition.

See Brightworks in action:

Would you send your child here?


With their dreary hallways and drab facades, most schools look more like hospitals than like centers for creativity, learning, and play. How can we expect to inspire students in such uninspired surroundings?

These amazing schools break the mold. They understand that playful environments are conducive to serious learning, whether in the classroom, hallway, or schoolyard. Let's hope more schools follow their lead!

  • Ecole Maternelle Pajol, a kindergarten in Paris, France. Photo via Palatre & Leclère.
  • Kindergarten Kekec in Ljubjana, Slovenia. Photo via Arhitektura Jure Kotnik.
  • Fuji Kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan. Photo via Domus.
  • Villiers High School in London, UK. Photo via Clara Gaggero.
  • Maria Grazia Cutuli Primary School in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo via IaN+.
  • Arreletes Day Care Centre in Els Alamús, Spain. Photo by Jordi Anguera, via Xavier Vilalta Studio.
  • ESGE Secondary School in Genolier, Switzerland. Photo via ipas.
  • Antas Education Centre in Porto, Portugal. Photo by José Campos via Arhitectural.
  • Cotham School in Bristol, UK. Photo by Jaimee Woodley, via Playscapes.

Kids don't have to think very hard about why they need to play. They just need the time and space to do it.

Even so, kids seem to intuitively understand that while play is first and foremost about having fun, it's also about challenging oneself and learning from failure. As we continue to be baffled by school policy makers and administrators who are slashing recess and other play opportunities, fourth graders like Diego remind us of the important life lessons that our playgrounds have to offer.

Here is his eloquent ode to monkey bars:

Monkey Bars

You’ve taught me a lot of good lessons

You’ve taught me to be braver than I am

To swing out as far as I can

To keep pushing forward

To move one step at a time

To fall into a heap in the dirt

And then get up and try again

Monkey Bars, you’ve shown me the stars

- By Diego, 4th grade

Diego is a student in the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, where this poem was originally featured.

Photo by Andy Schultz (cc).

"If we don't let our children play, who will be the next Steve Jobs?" Last year our CEO & Founder Darell Hammond posed this question in his Huffington Post blog. Judging from the nearly 25,000 readers who shared the post via social media, clearly some other folks are wondering, too.

Well, we just may have found him. Audri, the seven-year-old featured in this video, has built his very own "Monster Trap," similar in concept to the mouse trap in the popular board game of the same name -- except way cooler.

As Dr. Alison Gopnik aptly noted in a recent presentation at our annual Play Academy, "The point of play is not getting the right answers, it's getting all the wrong answers." Audri seems to intuitively understand this, remarking of his contraption: "I think it will have 10 to 20 failures and two successes. That's my hypothesis."

See if Audri's hypothesis proved correct:

This 5th-grader from Cache la Poudre Elementary School in La Porte, Colo. thinks that his recess teachers need to "loosen up." Why? According to him, their safety concerns are not only making it hard to stay active, but also to have any fun. 

In his words:

Exercise is really important and that is why I think the recess teachers should loosen up. We kids are just trying to have fun. Every day, it is a struggle to find what to do at recess, and then the next day, the fun is taken away.

For example, recently I was playing with a jump rope. I come out to school recess the next day and they are already gone. I want to complain to the recess teachers, but that will just get them mad at us all. I know they are just trying to keep us safe, but sometimes I think it is going over the line. Normally, teachers say school shouldn't be boring and it should be for learning and part of learning is being active. But these teachers are making it extra hard to do this.

See Wynter Brown's full letter here.

If you received this letter from Wynter, how would you respond?

In November KaBOOM! launched its first guest blogging contest, asking parents to muse about their experiences with play. We received lots of entries, and while it was tough, managed to narrow it down. Over the next ten weeks we will be publishing the top ten, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! Congratulations to all of our winners. In 3rd place is Angie Six from Indianapolis, Indiana…

"No climbing!"

"You'll get dirty!"

"Get down before you hurt yourself!"

Years ago, these were the things a kid would hear when they were getting too rambunctious for indoor play. My mother put up with a lot inside the house, but when we started climbing the walls she had the good sense to send us outside.

The rules for outside play were simple: stay close enough that we could hear our mothers yell, don't do anything that might get you killed. Given that kind of freedom, we spent hours playing outside and doing things that involved climbing, all kinds of mess, and a few injuries.

Fast-forward to the play time of today and you'll find rules aplenty. I don't have the same surroundings to send my children off on their own, so when they need to burn off energy we visit local playgrounds. My rules are nearly as simple as my mother's: stay near, be nice, and don't do anything that might get you killed. It's everyone else's rules that are killing the fun for today's kids.

The ravine my kids gravitate to because it's swampy and fun? The other kids get scolded for joining in. "You'll get dirty," the parents say. "We came here to play on the playground, not in the dirt." The sticks my kids use to build shelters? "Put that down! You'll put an eye out!" It's the looks I get when I let my kids climb a tree or stand on top of the monkey bars that's sharp enough to put an eye out.

I never imagined I'd be that mom, the one who the others judge for being too lax. I'm strict about sweets, I'm cranky about what they can and can't watch on TV. Compared to my own childhood, my children are far more micro-managed in every aspect of their day.

That's why it's so important to me to leave them be outside. Yes, they get dirty. Yes, I see them climbing and think about insurance deductibles. That's my job. It's also my job to step back and let them play. Dirty clothes can be washed. Balance and good judgement can only be learned by testing boundaries and, yes, sometimes falling.

It's hard not to feel self-conscious and turn into a helicopter parent. I resist, though, in hopes that there will be another parent there, watching. Perhaps their gut tells them the same as mine - that children need this, that kids inherently know what's okay and what they're capable of. Maybe they have just a smidgen less confidence than I do after nine years of parenting. Watching me give my kids freedom to play without the weight of so many rules may be just the thing they need to see so they'll feel okay with a less involvement.

If you see us on the playground, join us. We'll be up in the trees or in the mud. We'll be having fun - the only rule that really matters on the playground.

"Calculate the medical damage, and let them fall. How else are they going to learn balance?"

So asserted Julia Steiny, a columnist for Education News, at a recent community discussion on "Kids, Play, and Risk" at the Providence Children’s Museum. Though some parents might bristle at Julia's suggestion, she’s right.

When we don't allow children to take acceptable risks in their play, we take away crucial learning opportunities. Risk teaches them how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills, interact in groups, and negotiate rules amongst themselves.

Would you let your child do this?

Or this?

Why are kids taking fewer risks? Three culprits named in the discussion were increasing liability concerns, heightened perceptions of risk that lead to “helicopter” parenting, and fewer “eyes on the street.”

The benefits of risk are something to think about, particularly when confronting stories of schools banning running at recess, towns outlawing tree-climbing or fort-building, health departments issuing warnings on classic children’s games, or even grappling with our own inclinations to intervene immediately when we see children rough-housing.

Maybe we should turn to mother Angelica Almlid Barrows, whose children attended an outdoor preschool in Norway and were exposed to a natural environment that provided for acceptable risk. Angelica said, "perhaps because of these experiences, my kids are rarely bored and take on mental and physical challenges – learning a new skill is something they have patience with, and confidence they will succeed."

Do you let your kids take risks? How would you define an "acceptable" risk?

For more on the community conversation and the benefits of risk-taking, visit the Providence Children’s Museum’s blog.