Push Pause: The Pressing Case for Play

By Kimberly Kopko, Peg Oliveira

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Andrew was almost two years old when COVID-19 shut down the world. For the two years that followed, Andrew, an only child, spent his days with no one but his parents, who were working from home. By the fall of 2022, Andrew was legally eligible to start kindergarten. Because of pandemic restrictions, he had never attended preschool and had had no play-dates. He did, however, have the reading skills typical of a much older child, which is why his parents were surprised to learn that a developmental assessment suggested Andrew struggled with ­literacy, ­numeracy, and motor tasks, and showed delays in social and emotional skills. The assessor noted that he consistently looked to his mother for reassurance when answering questions and became anxious when she briefly left the room. Although old enough to attend kindergarten, Andrew, a child of the COVID-19 generation, was not prepared for the expectations of a kindergarten classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the lives of young children (Jalongo, 2021) and the long-range impacts of the epidemic cannot yet be fully predicted. But a clear picture is emerging of the immediate social and emotional impacts on children during the pandemic. Families are struggling (Phelps & Sperry, 2020), and research suggests that parents are reporting more child behavior problems (Sun et al., 2022). With a growing increase in requests for mental health services, a plan for ensuring that the children of the COVID-19 generation receive the academic and social and emotional support they need to rebound from continued pandemic echoes is needed.

So is a pause.

In stressful times, parents and teachers can return to a basic, fundamental “old school” priority of child development: play. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the value of play for children such as Andrew, concerns about learning loss can lead instead to a counterproductive doubling down on academics, a message that is being communicated to parents. They, too, are now responding by engaging children in more adult-directed structured activities, lessons, and tutoring, and leaving less room in the day for play.

While the idea that academics and play exist on opposite ends of the learning spectrum is a tidy one, it is also a myth (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2008). More misleading is the concept that a push-down of academic expectations, rigor, and high-stakes testing has led to better outcomes for young children or even a narrowing of existing achievement gaps. They have not. Instead, research has found that children who engage in play can learn as much in some domains of literacy and executive function as children who receive direct instruction from a teacher (Skene et al., 2022). Rather than perpetuate the battle of learning versus play, new research supports a philosophy of learning through play. This is an essential pedagogical shift that should be addressed immediately, within the context of the emotional fatigue of the pandemic. It may be that more time on drills and flash cards leads not to academic achievement but to burnout. Play, on the other hand, acts as a balm easing stress and anxiety and provides children with agency.

How Does Play Work?

The research is clear: Children learn and grow through active, engaged, meaningful, and joyful social experiences (Zosh et al., 2022). In other words, through play. But how is this accomplished? There are five components that contribute to this growth. Learning must be:

  • Active. Children learn with their whole bodies, not just their eyes and ears. They process information and apply and digest it through application, which allows them to own concepts, tinker with ideas, and make new discoveries that make sense. Children require more than just reading, observing, or lectures.
  • Engaged. Focused attention, with minimal distractions and transitions, allows children to become absorbed in an activity. Con­sider this: How long can adults you know stay focused, without looking at the screen or nodding off?
  • Meaningful. New concepts must be understood in context and applied. New knowledge is constructed based on hypothesis testing and revising our existing knowledge over time. Children need to be given opportunities to discover truths, not be dictated by them.
  • Socially interactive. Through play, children are able to practice and create safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with adults and other children. Feeling safe makes exploration possible, which is essential to learning. Securely attached children have better peer relationships, are more agreeable, and have greater self-regulation skills.
  • Joyful! Positive affect is linked to increased execu­tive functions, academic outcomes, and brain flexibility. Play has been shown to regulate the body’s stress response and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol.

The combination of these five ingredients leads to change at the molecular (epigenetic), cellular (neuronal connectivity), and behavioral levels (executive function). Developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is an opportunity for a child to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. (To read about ten things every parent should know about play, see Bongiorno, 2022.)

Why Is Play Important for Child Development?

Most environmental experiences initiate some type of response from the nervous system, and events perceived as challenging or threatening can elicit stress, which can trigger the brain to fight, flee, or freeze. In the presence of danger the brain fires up a survival response and keeps it burning until a sense of safety is restored. While danger is present, this is adaptive. However, in the case of chronic stress, the ongoing firing of the survival response can over time set the whole nervous system aflame, leading to habituated reactivity and potentially illness. It can also lead to a complete shutdown, exhibited as withdrawal behavior. The impact of a communal trauma such as the pandemic or the pressure on students and their families to catch up on lost learning can trigger such a long-term response.

Play is at the other end of the spectrum. Play can be neurorestorative to a brain affected with stress (Barnett, 1984; Hatfield & Williford, 2017; Wenner, 2009). More than just a respite from the chaos, play has the capacity to put out the fire in an overwhelmed and reactive young brain and nervous system. Developmentally appropriate play meets the child where they are and reminds the young brain that the world can feel manageable and secure again, allowing the nervous system to calm.

Play offers children a sense of control, allowing them to explore their interests in an unhurried and relaxed manner. Indeed, various types of play, including playing with parents, engage a child’s mind and create space for creativity and discovery. Playing with parents helps build strong relationships (Ginsburg et al., 2007) and is especially helpful to children during stressful times because it allows families to spend time together, which helps children to trust and feel safe and secure. Fantasy play allows children to create their own world where they determine the activities, participants, scenes, and settings. Exercising control over a pretend world and predicting what will happen in that world helps to reduce stress. Sensory play also reduces stress and has a calming effect, helping to regulate overall arousal level and soothe the child.

Play builds the more creative, curious, and problem-solving areas of the brain known as executive function skills. These skills help a child self-regulate and control their own behavior. The ability to focus, manage distractions and temptations, hold information, and apply these skills in new situations are all executive function skills essential to healthy human development and lifelong success (Shaheen, 2014). Executive function skills are also used by a child when navigating an early childhood playroom. These skills will grow and adapt over a child’s life, and the opportunity to exercise them can be instrumental to their optimal development. Play offers that opportunity. (For more on developmentally appropriate play ideas, see Yogman et al., 2018.)

Playing at Home

Parents can set a culture in the home that allows time for open-ended, unstructured, and child-­directed play. This includes ensuring children have access to the materials as well as the time needed for play.

  • Provide tools for play. Offer a dedicated play space that is accessible and in a section of the home where the ­family congregates. Have multiple types of open-ended play items on hand such as blocks, tiles, dramatic play toys, and art supplies. Let this be a screen-free zone.
  • Allow the time to play freely. Unstructured play allows children to decide how they will spend this time outside of school and other scheduled activities that are determined by adults. Two of the many advantages of unstructured play include emotional and behavioral benefits, which are important for self-­regulation (Colliver et al., 2022). Unstructured play also promotes real-world skills, including knowing how to resolve conflicts and being willing to take risks. Parents can think of unstructured play as a way to ease stress and soothe any sense of feeling overwhelmed. Much like a parent going for a walk or meditating, unstructured play is an activity that feels familiar and safe to a child and creates a space where they can connect to something that helps ground and empower them.
  • Play as a family. Parents can also participate in play with their child. Have the child take the lead and set the rules. This type of play will allow the child to choose what and how to play, while the parent goes along with their choices. Research demonstrates this type of play supports self-­regulation (Bodrova et al., 2000) and also provides parents with an opportunity to model appropriate social behavior.
  • Go outside. Let children engage with a naturalistic setting. Encourage children to collect specimens from land or water and learn about weather patterns. The outdoors also provides the space needed for big movements and developmentally appropriate risk-taking like swimming, scrambling on rocks, or taking long hikes.

Push Play to Pause

Research overwhelmingly supports the importance and value of play for children’s positive development. As children like Andrew return to school post-­pandemic and struggle with social and emotional skills, it may be time to issue a crucial call to priori­tize play. This would require a fundamental shift in a cultural understanding of what is needed for children’s learning and healthy growth and development, and a true acceptance that learning occurs through play, just as it does through structured activities and academics. More important, play brings a myriad of unmatched other benefits to children including emotion regulation, stress reduction, and a sense of mastery of their environment. Children can play their way into learning. Providing the time and space for play will benefit all members of the family and allow for less stress and a little more joy in the home.

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Kimberly Kopko

Kimberly Kopko received her PhD in child development from the Department of Human Development at Cornell University and works with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in the College of Human Ecology. Her research and extension work examine child development and parenting and family processes. Current research and outreach projects include parenting and child learning, parenting education in school-based health centers, teens being raised by custodial grandparents, and the use of research and evidence-based parent education programs to promote positive parenting behaviors and strengthening families.

Peg Oliveira

Peg Oliveira is the director of the Gesell Program in Early Childhood at the Yale Child Study Center. Peg received her doctorate from Brandeis University and is a developmental psychologist with a career in advocacy and social activism. She has worked with state agencies, national advocacy coalitions, and local initiatives to ensure that all children get a high-quality early learning experience. Peg has written for national publications and education texts, and designs professional development content and trainings on how educators see and teach children.