Sidelining Play in School Shortchanges Children

By Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel, and Beth Taylor
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, with permission of the publisher.

Once upon a time, before education was mandated and became a public responsibility, children witnessed and participated closely in the daily life of home and community. In the process, they developed some understanding of how things worked in the adult world — from the concrete, physical experiences of starting a fire, drawing water, or spinning yarn to the more distant and general rules governing family authority, relationships, and community responsibilities.

Children’s lives then, though integrally involved in the adult world, were, of course, far from ideal. Their families suffered from multiple hardships and deprivations, and child labor was an essential part of the economy.

Most of us would not trade those times for ours. Nonetheless, some aspects of modern life bring different kinds of deprivations for children as they spend less time in the company of adults and participate less in useful domestic tasks or social community.

Their lives are increasingly filled with virtual realities. Children spend long hours sitting in front of TV screens seeing moving images of a created world when they have barely had a chance to experience, or explore firsthand, the real one. The basic elements of education—a feel for the surrounding physical and social/political structures—have been bypassed. There is little space, time, or opportunity for preschool children to experiment and explore; there is little encouragement to invent, envision other worlds, exercise creative imagination, even to seriously think.

Nor do the toys children are given encourage invention or imagination; most have limited possibilities and are designed to develop specific skills or abilities judged necessary for school success. Thus, most children arrive in elementary school without the kind of knowledge we believe furthers the development of strong, independent learners and future members of a democratic society.