How Play Leads to Academic Success at TCS

By Allen Broyles
Assistant Head for Academics & Director of Upper School

Since our founding in 1970, The Children’s School has been a staunch advocate for childhood and play.  In an educational landscape that continues to reduce the time for inventive, unstructured play, and that pushes academic skills to younger and younger ages, TCS protects play as a critical part of development. 

John Dewey, the preeminent philosopher and educational reformer who founded the constructivist approach to education once noted: “Play is the work of children.” He did not mean this lightly. While many associate play with frivolity, this mischaracterizes its pivotal role in our cognitive, social and psychological development. TCS protects play and childhood because they are an investment in the long-term intellectual and academic development of our students and an investment toward the kind of adults we want our children to become.

Among us mammals – human or otherwise – play is an evolutionary adaptation that allows the young of a species to develop strong adult skills. Imagine lion cubs at play. They run, crouch, leap, stalk, navigate their place in the social group, and learn how to communicate. The adult lions are right there with them, modeling all of these skills that are fun and engaging but are also essential to their survival. 

It is no different with children. In play, they learn how to work their bodies – which is essential to their health – and navigate the physical world; they have engaging experiences and learn the  language to describe those experiences and the world around them, which underpins reading, writing and communication; they learn how to interact with objects in three dimensional space, which leads to stronger math conceptualization; they learn the give and take of social communication, developing group agreements and conflict resolution, which are all essential for work and life success; and they learn how to build, design, imagine and dream in an unstructured, ambiguous environment, which builds resilience, creativity and the ability to improvise.

An extensive body of research documents the connection between play and academic success. A few conclusions regarding direct academic outcomes include:

  • Children who spend more time playing with blocks at a young age demonstrate stronger math and language skills later.
  • In a recent study from New Zealand, children who learned to read at seven, versus five, perform the same as the earlier readers by age 9, but have better comprehension. While the research doesn’t identify why, the speculation is that they are spending more time engaged in direct interaction with their world, in projects, and in social communication, and have developed a more extensive set of experiences.
  • Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School, outlines in his book “Spark” multiple studies that show that the more physically fit a student is, the better their academic performance. Counterintuitively, if you take away some academic time and devote it to physical exercise, academic performance goes up.
  • Erika Christakis of the Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, in her book “The Importance of Being Little”, shows that play-based early learning programs lead to stronger academic results.

The research is clear. Children who are allowed to be children are not only healthier, happier, socially stronger, and more resilient, they also better develop critical core competencies that lay the groundwork for later academic success.

As children get older, play gives way to playfulness. Here at TCS, the spirit of play stays alive and well in our older students and adults as well. Our choice of project-based learning is a natural partner with play, as it involves groups of students working toward a common but ambiguous goal; it requires the give and take of social communication and compromise; it demands flexibility and creativity; and it allows students to engage with one another in fun and social ways. Students are able to go deeper into content in this type of exploration, and the research shows that learning this way leads to deeper academic understanding and content retention. We also value play for its own sake at the older ages, which is why we place such a strong focus on our Big/Little Buddies program, and why even our Middle Grades students have recess every day.

At TCS we are committed to amplifying childhood. We live in a world where children are made to grow up too quickly, and where we misguidedly push rote academic work into younger and younger grades. The intent may be understandable and is driven by a desire to make sure our students succeed. The irony is that by removing the element of unstructured play, we are actually undermining the long-term academic success of our students. 

The wonderful news is that playing with each other is not only what’s best for our emotional and physical health, it is also the surest way to develop the strong academic and cognitive skills that students need. This is the foundation of the academic and social success our students have had and continue to have as they move on to other highly competitive schools.

If you’d like to hear Allen speak more about play, click here to watch the presentation “How Play Leads to Academic Success” he gave at the September Parents Association meeting. 

Sources

Christakis, Erika. The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups. Penguin Books, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books, 2015.

Greve, Werner, and Tamara Thomsen. “Evolutionary Advantages of Free Play During Childhood.” Evolutionary Psychology, vol. 14, no. 4, 2016, p. 147470491667534., doi:10.1177/1474704916675349.

Moyer, Melinda Wenner. “The Serious Need for Play.” Scientific American, vol. 23, no. 1s, 2013, pp. 78–85., doi:10.1038/scientificamericancreativity1213-78.

Ratey, John J., and Eric Hagerman. Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown, 2013.

Suggate, Sebastian P., et al. “Children Learning to Read Later Catch up to Children Reading Earlier.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1, 2013, pp. 33–48., doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.04.004.

Vega, Vanessa. “Project-Based Learning Research Review.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 1 Dec. 2015, www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-learning-outcomes.

Wolfgang, Charles H., et al. “Block Play Performance Among Preschoolers As a Predictor of Later School Achievement in Mathematics.” Journal of Research in Childhood Education, vol. 15, no. 2, 2001, pp. 173–180., doi:10.1080/02568540109594958.