Reclaiming Play: Helping Children Learn and Thrive in School

February 12th, 2013 posted by Nancy Carlsson-Paige

by Nancy Carlsson-Paige

girl playing in tree

Child development theorists, researchers, and educators have long known that play is one of children’s most valuable resources, vital to their social, emotional, and cognitive growth. Through play children make sense of the world around them and work through new experiences, ideas, and feelings. But in recent years, a host of social forces and trends – the influence of media, commercialism, fast-paced family life, academic pressures in schools – have been eroding healthy play, robbing children of this valuable resource for optimal growth and learning. Children today are playing less at home, outdoors, and at school. According to a national Kaiser Family Foundation survey, children in the two- to seven-year-old age group now average about three hours per day in front of screens – time they don’t spend in active, child-centered play (Rideout, et al., 2003). More parents today work, and work longer and harder than they did a generation ago, and without a system of quality national child care and after school care, many rely on screens or structured activities to occupy their kids. In our nation’s schools, teachers have had to cut recess and open-ended play in order to meet pressures in a climate of test-driven curriculum. The focus on academic skills and scripted teaching, alarmingly, has pushed down even to preschools and kindergartens where play experiences are disappearing.


When children manipulate materials in play, they are building a foundation of understanding for the concepts and skills we want them to learn in school. We can’t tell children to understand number, for example, by having them copy number symbols onto paper or by reciting the names of numbers. They have to ‘discover’ for themselves what numbers mean – for example that five unifix cubes and five hats and five blocks are all the same quantity – and this they can only do through hands-on experience with materials. Once children understand the concept of numbers, the symbols such as the number symbol ‘5’ have real meaning because children have constructed this knowledge for themselves, or as Piaget might say, they have ‘invented’ it. When children construct their ideas through play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, their knowledge builds in a hand-over-hand way that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning through play that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science, and the arts.


Through play children build the foundation they need to understand the concepts they learn in school, but play offers an even deeper benefit as well. Through play children continually regain their sense of equilibrium which is what allows them to greet learning tasks in school with openness and confidence – to have the emotional and mental readiness to say: “I can do this task and I want to do it!” Though we may barely notice it, this is ideally what children are always doing in play. They take pieces of experience and transform them into something new, re-ordering things in terms that make sense to them and gaining mastery over the challenges they’ve encountered. As they create their own scenarios, children come to understand and integrate what they’ve experienced in life – the birth of a sibling, an argument overheard between parents, a scary scene viewed in a movie. In this way, play serves children’s learning even more deeply than we sometimes recognize because it’s through the process of play that children continually return to emotional and mental balance and the readiness to learn.


The social and emotional skills considered vital for success in school begin to build in the early years and to a large extent, they develop through play. As children play, they also learn to control their impulses. They have to stay within the boundaries of the roles they create in their imaginary situations and in so doing, they develop more self-regulatory social behavior (Vygotsky, 1933, 1978). When children play together, conflicts are commonplace because young kids tend to see things from their own perspective and don’t easily understand how their actions affect others. But today, conflicts among children are increasing as they try out the models of aggression and violence they’ve absorbed from the media and have diminishing opportunities to develop social skills through spontaneous play with other children. Because of this, it is more important than ever that we facilitate children’s conflicts in ways that help them learn social and emotional skills. When we send children to time-out, we aren’t giving them any new ideas or skills for building positive relationships. Especially today, as we see so many children in great need of learning social and emotional skills, we can do a lot to foster this critical learning by intervening in ways that encourage skill building. And as research now tells us, we’ll not only be helping children become more socially competent, we’ll be giving them tools that will increase their likelihood of success in school. A definitive meta-analysis of more than one hundred studies showed that students who had social and emotional learning not only got along better with others, but also learned more effectively and had higher grades and achievement test scores (Weissberg, et al., 2007). This is a time when societal influences are robbing children of healthy play, one of the most important vehicles they have for optimal development and learning. We need to step in – with the awareness and skills that is uniquely ours as parents and educators – to reclaim this powerful resource for children. Taking active steps to encourage imaginative and beneficial play that truly serves children’s needs will not only reclaim play for them, but also give children the best foundation possible for success in school and in their lives both now and in years to come.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige (1 Posts)

Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University where she has taught teachers for more than 30 years, and is a research affiliate at Lesley's Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. Nancy has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms, and global education. Her latest book, Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World (Hudson Street Press, March, 2008), offers adults myriad ways to encourage healthy growth, loving kindness, and nonviolence in children. For more information visit

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