The following Op-Ed by Lesley Professor Emerita Nancy Carlsson-Paige was published in The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog on Sept. 17, 2020.
Two children, ages 4 and 6, are coping with the covid-19 pandemic in their playroom. They are zapping bad germs away with outstretched arms and hissing sounds and using magic wands to bring dead people back to life. These two kids are using the most important natural resource children have for coping with their sometimes scary and confusing world: play.
Decades of research and theory tell us that play is the primary way that young children make sense of their world. Play is how children maintain emotional balance; it’s how they cope. Play is such a driving force in children’s lives that it is sometimes called the engine of their development. No one teaches children how to play, yet they all know how to do it.
Hardly a frivolous activity, play is not only the vehicle children use to cope, it’s also how they learn — how they build concepts, invent ideas and learn to think for themselves.
There are many accounts of children playing out challenges and traumas they have faced in different life experiences. Children today who are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic need lots of imaginative play opportunities to help them make sense of the radical changes that have affected so many aspects of their lives.
And once kids do return to in-person school, they are going to need a lot of time to play to process all the changes they’ve been through. This is what will help them regain a sense of security for going forward.
Ever since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, we’ve seen play disappearing from classrooms for young kids, replaced by an overemphasis on academic standards and testing. This approach is wrongheaded and goes against everything early-childhood professionals know about what children need and how they learn in the early years.
Research on kindergarten programs has shown that the greatest of these changes occurred in programs serving children of color from low-income communities. Their classrooms have been the ones that most overemphasized academic skills, worksheets and drills, and pushed out opportunities for play.
But the play disparity in school begins well before kindergarten. Because we don’t provide high-quality preschool to all children in the nation, parents are on their own to try to find prekindergarten programs for their kids.