Play for its own Sake

Play for Its Own Sake

An Essay by Brian C. Scheff

(C) 2009


During this time of MCAS and high stakes testing for students, parents of young children are becoming increasingly concerned with school readiness and early “academic” learning. Yet, hopefully, even as children’s time is becoming increasingly pre-programmed and structured, play is still a fundamental part of childhood.

Often parents and educators try to justify children’s play in terms of its educational value. As director of a preschool I have said many times, to countless parents, that at Discovery Schoolhouse we like, allow, and encourage children to play because “play is the work of childhood.”

I have explained how playing with blocks teaches children about the physical world, math, symmetry, gravity, cooperation, and friendship. I have explained why finger-painting, coloring, gluing, cutting, and using Playdough helps children develop fine muscle control, self-expression, creativity, and writing skills. I have talked about the social learning that takes place through dramatic play, and about how children work out emotional issues and cognitive conundrums. And, I have discussed how play allows children a chance to experiment with different adult roles and the complexities of life of which they are only just becoming aware. I have tried my best to explain that children learn everything best through play, so by giving children ample opportunities and materials for play – good, constructive, purposeful, and, above all, free play – we can best prepare them for successful lives, academically, socially, and personally.

And all this is true. Play does all these wonderful things for children, but none of them is the reason children play and none of them is really the reason parents and educators should be sure that young children’s play is supported and encouraged. We should let children play simply because it is what children are supposed to do! Children are meant to play. They are programmed to play. They are designed to play. It is through play that children find joy and meaningfulness in their lives. Childhood is not childhood without play. Indeed, a childhood without play is a “lost childhood.” Play comes naturally to children and has throughout all of history and across all cultural, economic, and class lines. Isn’t the thing which distinguishes children from adults the unconstrained ability to play freely and unselfconsciously, and the opportunity to do it?

I know from my own experience as a teacher of young children and as a father, from recollections of my own childhood, and from the research, that children who are allowed to simply and freely play (and all that goes along with it – to explore, create, befriend, wonder, dream…) are children who will be successful in school and in life. They will read and write and they will learn their colors and numbers. I am so confident of this that I am sometimes struck speechless by those who doubt it! Need we always justify play solely in terms of its educational benefits? Can’t we just accept that children are supposed to play as surely as we are all meant to breathe?

I have read that the originator of the classic toy “alphabet blocks” only added the ABC’s to the blocks after he found that parents wouldn’t buy them as simple play toys, so he decided that if they looked more “educational” parents would buy them, and he was right. However, children, with the wisdom of children, mostly like to stack, build, and just play with the blocks! The letters certainly don’t hurt, but are they really necessary? Is there something un–educational about un-lettered blocks? Is there something unimportant about children’s play that cannot immediately be connected with eventual academic learning?

David Elkind, Ph.D. said in a recent article in the professional journal Young Children that he will “no longer advocate for play based on its intellectual, social, or emotional benefits” but rather simply because it’s “fun” and because it’s what children are designed to do. Dr. Elkind is not only the well-known author of the books The Hurried Child, Miseducation, and Reinventing Childhood, but also professor and chair of the Department of Child Development at Tufts University, and a former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

At Discovery Schoolhouse I feel obligated to continue to explain to parents all the benefits, academic and otherwise, of play, and I believe in them all, but in my heart I know that play is right for children for it’s own sake and that it is play that will have real, true, lasting value throughout their lives. Dr. Elkind concludes by saying, “If we encourage and facilitate children’s true play, we bequeath them an important and priceless gift, an album of joyous memories. Years from now these memories are what our young charges – grown up – will remember us by, and thank us for.”

Instead of worrying about preparing our young children for the next grade level or their eventual MCAS scores, we should all step back and really watch our children at play and marvel at the simple wonder and beauty of it, and perhaps worry only that the time for play will be gone all too soon.


Brian C. Scheff is a preschool teacher and Executive Director of Discovery Schoolhouse, Inc., in Milton, MA and father of three.

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