Let Them Play: A Psychologist’s Argument To Ditch Traditional Academics

The idea that “earlier is better” isn’t supported by developmental psychology research. In fact, play forms a necessary foundation for competencies in school and beyond. 

kids engaged in play based learning

A disturbing video found its way to the top of my Facebook feed recently. A distant acquaintance proudly displayed her four-year-old reading during the first September of his pre-K year. She wrote that he “wasn’t getting enough” from his former preschool, so she and her husband decided to take a financial hit to hire a nanny who could “teach him right.” Within three weeks of the nanny’s presence, the boy was reading!

The comments on the post were across-the-board congratulatory, many of them amazed. 

All I could think, though, was, “Poor kid.”

A beat later, I thought, “And his poor parents.” They were just doing what they believed to be best. But they’d been profoundly misled by a society that believes earlier is better, academic prowess in early childhood is the holy grail, and formal instruction in preschool and kindergarten will unlock the keys to Ivy League success in the future.

The problem is, the data actually points in the opposite direction. 


Differences In Types of Instruction

There are two predominant ways of educating preschool and elementary-aged children:


Direct Academic Instruction


The traditional method of learning in American public school classrooms, direct academic instruction consists of a teacher providing lessons and assignments for a group of children, choosing their activities for them and moving them through a series of predetermined topics each day. Activities often or always have a “right” answer toward which the children are working. 


Play-Based, Experiential Learning


Children in play-based or experiential settings typically choose their own activities, which may be interspersed with group time, such as circle time or hands-on lessons. The goal is for children to direct their own learning within an environment that has been purposefully prepared with materials that will engage and stretch them, meeting their developmental level. Materials and activities are open-ended, encouraging divergent thinking and problem-solving. 

A variety of specific teaching philosophies and approaches fall into these two broad categories, and the degree to which a teacher scripts their lessons and offers hands-on opportunities varies by school and instructor.


Learning Academics Early Doesn’t Stick


Direct instruction typically aims to teach particular academic skills and competencies as early as possible. Reading, in particular, has become emphasized earlier and earlier, with the Common Core requiring children to learn to read in kindergarten. Although many states have dropped the Common Core testing, most states have kept the underlying standards within their updated or renamed curricula, meaning that reading is still stressed in kindergarten – and even preschool.

This emphasis, however, leads to no long-term gains, according to research.

“By the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class,” Marcy Guddemi, the Executive Director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development wrote in a review of research findings. “Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.”

In some countries, most notably Finland, child-directed activities and experiential learning are the norm throughout elementary school. These children not only catch up on reading, but by adolescence, score higher on international tests of reading than Americans.


Documented Benefits Of Play-Based Learning


In fact, we don’t just lose early gains with age, a good deal of research indicates that shoving out play-based learning in favor of early academic learning actually causes damage in the long run.

In one study that is notable because it was a true experiment, children were randomly assigned to preschools that were either play-based or direct instruction. The kids looked similar for the first decade after preschool, but at follow-ups at 15 and 23 years of age, the individuals who had been in direct instruction had more social issues than the children who had been in play-based environments. 

In particular, “47 percent of the children assigned to the direct instruction classroom needed special education for social difficulties versus only 6 percent from the play-oriented preschool classrooms,” write authors of a report published by Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood. “And by age 23, police records showed a higher rate of arrests for felony offenses among those who were previously in the instructional program (34 percent) compared to those in the play-based programs (9 percent).”

Since the children were randomly assigned to the different classrooms, we can point to the preschool environment as a genuine cause of their social challenges. All in all, the researchers concluded, “This study supports the preventive value of early childhood education based on child-initiated learning activities over early childhood education based on scripted teacher-directed instruction.”


Why Play-Based Learning Works


Play-based learning works because children are not tiny adults. They relate to the world in a qualitatively different way than we do.

This fact made famed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget say, “play is the work of the child.” That’s because play develops children in many key ways, including:

  • Social Skills:  Through unstructured play, children learn to take turns, compromise, collaborate, and in general relate to others in a way that balances initiative with understanding.
  • Emotion Regulation:  On a related point, the process of learning social skills results in inevitable frustrations as peers take away toys, dominate play, or fail to engage with the child’s ideas. Learning how to persevere and bounce back from frustration is an invaluable emotional skill that we all need to master.
  • Cognitive Skills:  Pretend play builds children’s ability to represent information that is not immediately available, setting the stage for abstract thinking, and also to think creatively and recognize that there are many different possible outcomes for every situation.

Together, these skills support executive functioning (EF), which consists of self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility according to Guddemi. A host of research has found that EF is boosted by play-based learning environments much more than by direct instruction. Importantly, “some researchers are finding that EF is a better predictor of academic success than IQ,” reported Guddemi.


Closing Thoughts


Thus, the overriding message from research in developmental psychology is that we need to meet children’s needs before piling on our societal desires for academic success. Trying to force early academic milestones through direct instruction is like trying to frame a house before pouring the foundation.

While we may think we’re doing right by our kids by making them read, write, and do formal math during preschool and elementary school, even when they show no interest in doing so, the evidence doesn’t support that practice. I see it in my own college classroom every day:  they all gained entry by being strong at academics, so what sets students apart from others is their ability to self-regulate, plan their own direction, and relate empathically to peers and faculty. 

In other words, the students who stand out and excel are the ones who have the skills that are built through one key early experience: play. 



Continue exploring 


  • Think your child needs a perfect parent? Think again. In this article, Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting discusses how your quest to be perfect may get in the way of enjoying your child.
  • When children engage in open ended play, they’re encouraged to use their imaginations, creativity and problem solving skills, which is crucial for their cognitive and physical development. See our guide to open-ended play.