Reflections on Play: Join the Conversation

The early childhood field has a history of conflict over means and goals that periodically erupts into public debates about the role of play versus academics and construction versus instruction. Concerns about whether preschool and kindergarten have become too stressful and regimented are met head on with concerns that they are academically weak and fail to cognitively challenge children. These conflicts have been intensified by increased demands for assessment  and Common Core State Standards driving curriculum in the early grades.

kids playing dressup

Some worry that the push for quality education even partially driven by a desire to improve achievement may deprive children of important childhood experiences. Others worry that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds, particularly for children at high risk of academic failure. Fears are further fanned through research with one recent study reporting that kindergarten may be “too easy,”  and another questioning the assumption of causal relationships between play and child development in the areas of creativity, reasoning, and executive function.

If this debate takes place only in the popular press it seems all too likely that we will be propelled into yet another unproductive and oversimplified debate over play versus academics. To promote a better discussion, NIEER will be hosting a conversation beginning with brief blog posts from experts in early childhood education on play; the goals, content, and methods of early education; and what best practice should look like in the early years. We want you to get involved! Leave comments on the blog with your own thoughts on play-based learning in preschool, share resources on Facebook and Twitter, and catch up on our past writings on the importance of play.


  1. Block play is wonderful early STEAM education. I am especially interested in ways parents can guide and comment on this play in ways that will help prepare their children for school math.

  2. Here’s to blocks! I’m delighted that NIEER is expanding the conversation about play, one of the most critical issues for the field. ECE practitioners, translators of the research, need to continue to define developmentally appropriate practice–important for all children, but especially those at risk.

  3. For those not in the Early Childhood education field…..the idea that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds shouldn’t be the only idea of “play”. What about the idea that “play” can be structured and planned with intention?? I teach 32, 4 year-old Title 1 preK students with deliberate, intentional instruction and play each day.

  4. Thank you for starting this very important conversation on this respected forum. I look forward to reading the comments and blog posts. I believe that play is critical to development, in part because of its connection with executive function and resilience…and joy. Research on play, especially pretend play, is vitally important so that we can connect the dots between neuroscience, DAP, and the skills our children need to be healthy, happy, curious learners.

  5. Play is the essence of children. It stimulates critical thinking and expands on imagination. Without play curiosity would never happen then the world would be deprived of thinkers who may the discoverers of the “next best thing”. It it a shame that some people can’t see the importance

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  7. Kristina Leeb-Lundberg’s chapter in “The Block Book” begins as follows. “A Child’s artistry in – and feeling for – block building is closely related to the true mathematician’s view of mathematics as a creative art. The aesthetic pleasure that adult mathematicians experience … is similar to the pleasure and joy that children experience when they build. Blocks give children an entry into a world where objects have predictable similarities and relations. They can be explored and experimented with and, because of their specific shape be absolutely relied upon

  8. Susan K. Verwys, Ph.D. on

    As an early childhood professor, I worry a great deal about the increase in academics in preschool and kindergarten. One of my greatest concerns is in the area of self-regulation and social skills, both learned so well through play. I wonder if we might see a rise in bullying in later grades with so much “push-down” curriculum.

    • Susan, Well said! As the supervisor of early childhood in a large,urban school district, we focus on play, executive functioning, and learning as a social construct. That’s how we roll.

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