What Children Learn From Play

Happy hearts and happy faces,
Happy play in grassy places--
That was how in ancient ages,
Children grew to kings and sages.
--Robert Louis Stevenson

Poets and other experts have known it for years. Children need to play. Whether they are building a city of blocks or pretending to be a parent or chasing a friend around the playground, they are fully engaged. Their eyes are bright. They are filled with joy. They are doing what they were born knowing how to do.

Play is intrinsically linked to human happiness, according to Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play. “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression,” writes Brown with Christopher Vaughan in Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. “When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel the most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?”

Children, and all young mammals for that matter, are hard-wired to play. “It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival,” write Brown and Vaughan. “It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups.”

In human beings, play takes many forms: imaginative or fantasy play, rough and tumble play, constructive or artistic play, and structured games. Although most experts acknowledge that play is hard to define, they all agree that play is always immersive, self-directed, and fun—and that it has an attitude of joy and no purpose beyond itself.

However, play does have a deeper purpose. Through play, children make sense of the world around them—and figure out how they fit in that world. “Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspective, negotiate differences with others, and make friends,” writes Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, in Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. “In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”

Unfortunately, free play among children has been steadily declining in recent years due to growing distractions with technology, the rise of organized sports and adult-directed activities, among other reasons. Interestingly, children today sometimes have less play in their lives than their parents do; many companies take pride in their creative play culture, complete with colorful, communal workspaces and everything from climbing walls to ping pong. This loss of play during childhood has its consequences.

Gray believes there is a connection between this decline in play and the simultaneous decline in the mental health of young people. “Play, especially social play with other children, serves a variety of developmental functions, all of which promote children’s mental health,” he writes in an article in American Journal of Play. “In the absence of such play, children fail to acquire the social and emotional skills that are essential for healthy psychological development.”

It’s ironic. Our 21st-century culture is depriving many of its children of play. However, the skills that play most develops in children are precisely those needed to succeed in the 21st-century workplace, skills like innovation, flexible thinking, adaptability, and imagination. “There is no better place to develop a child’s imagination than in play,” write Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler in their book Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day. “When children engage in imaginative play, not only do they develop their creativity, they learn to be flexible thinkers, and they develop core social skills, such as negotiation, collaboration, and empathy.”

Play-based learning in schools like Slate is restoring play to the lives of children in 21st-century America. And contrary to popular belief, academic rigor and a play-based curriculum are not mutually exclusive, according to Mraz, Porcelli, and Tyler. In fact, play-based learning is lively and robust precisely because it meets children where they are and allows them to soar wherever they need to go. “Play is a natural learning environment for children and it is something that they have been doing their whole lives before coming to school,” write Mraz, Porcelli, and Tyler. “Because it is safe and familiar, children feel free to take risks and try on new learning.”

Teachers who believe in the principles of play-based education integrate play across the day and across the curriculum, not just in designated recess times. They create classroom environments that are regularly conducive to play. They carefully observe students playing in order to assess them and determine how best to facilitate the multiple learning opportunities already present in their play. They look for play opportunities in every academic subject and for academic opportunities in every play activity. Maybe they ask a relevant question or file away some thoughts to spark a conversation later--or maybe they just let play do its work and trust in the process.

Here’s how Julie Mountcastle, Slate School’s Head Teacher, describes the play-based learning process: “The job of the teacher is to help students recognize the importance of the “aha!” moments they experience in play and then invite them to mine the abundant connections between their discoveries and the wider world. And do all of this in a spirit of excitement, wonder and joy.”

As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of children.” It provides them with everything they need to be happy and capable adults. The United Nations, in its Convention on the Rights of the Child, has even declared that children have a right to play. In a culture that often diminishes the importance of play, Slate School focuses on giving children back that right.

Jane Aronson, who is President and CEO of Worldwide Orphans and one of our inspirations and mentors about play-based learning, discusses Slate School's important focus on creativity and play.