Cover Story

What did your kindergarten look like? For most adults, kindergarten brings back images of Play-doh, building blocks and maybe a teacher reading aloud.

But kindergarten circa 2009 is different, finds a report published by a nonprofit group of psychologists and educators called the Alliance for Childhood. Kindergartners in New York and Los Angeles spend nearly three hours per day on reading and math instruction and test prep, and less than half an hour each day on "choice time," or play, finds the report Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School.

Those same kids probably don't get much time to play dress-up or make-believe outside of school either. In fact, children today have eight fewer hours of free, unstructured playtime a week than they had 20 years ago, according to Tufts University psychologist David Elkind, PhD—time lost to organized sports, video games and educational computer programs, among other activities.

Now, Elkind and others are trying to resuscitate playtime's reputation among parents and policymakers who often view play as a waste of valuable learning time.

"Play is really important for young children, for social and cognitive development," says psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a child development researcher at Temple University. "And yet we're taking it away."

Whither playtime?

Disappearing playtime at home and in schools stems from a common root, says Hirsh-Pasek: fear. "As a society and as parents, we believe we're at risk of falling behind," she says.

Marketers of infant and early childhood educational products stress that research on brain development shows a "critical period" before age 3 when neurons grow and develop connections, and they urge parents to make sure they harness this special learning time.

That concern has manifested itself in an ever-widening market for "edutainment" toys, and such products as vocabulary-enriching computers for tots have become the toy market's hottest segment. LeapFrog, one company that specializes in such toys, saw its sales nearly quadruple between 2000 and 2006, prompting industry giants like Mattel to follow them into the edutainment market.

A national fear of falling behind manifests itself in schools as well, Hirsh-Pasek says, via more standardized testing and a push for content to be taught at ever-earlier grade levels—expecting children to learn to read in kindergarten, for example, rather than waiting until first grade.

"We want to make sure that our kids are ready for a globalized society. So what do we do about it? We keep shoving more factoids at them," says Hirsh-Pasek.

The trouble, Hirsh-Pasek and Elkind argue, is that parents and educators are ignoring decades of evidence that young children learn best through active, exploratory play (sometimes guided by an adult) rather than through direct, lecture-style classroom instruction, flash cards and push-button computer learning toys that can push them to memorize facts that they're not cognitively ready to understand.

"The real problem is not that we don't know what's good pedagogy for children," Elkind says. "It's that we don't use what we know."

Tiny scientists

Educators and researchers alike have long known or suspected that children learn from exploratory play. Italian educator Maria Montessori founded her schools in 1907, where children's own interests and abilities guide the pace of their learning. And beginning in the 1920s, Jean Piaget studied children's exploratory learning through close observations of his own and other children.

In the decades since, psychologists have expanded upon and refined their knowledge of how children learn through play. They've found that children learn spatial skills and counting through activities like playing with blocks, and they can pick up a rich vocabulary simply by hearing books read aloud.

Imaginary play and make-believe have myriad benefits as well, giving children practice working with others, and substituting one object, like a toy hammer, for another, like a phone—a knowledge of symbols that lays the foundation for reading and math.

This learning process is not haphazard, says Laura Schulz, PhD, a psychologist at the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She's found that preschoolers are, in some ways, rational little scientists in their approach. Children need to learn the properties of objects around them—an oven is hot, ice is cold, etc. Sensibly, they do this by recognizing that objects in similar categories have similar properties: if one ice cube is cold, the next one likely will be too.

In a series of studies, Schulz has investigated how violating these rules by surprising children with an object that has properties that don't fit into its predetermined category cause children to play with—and thus learn about—the object more.

For example, in one study, published last year in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 44, No. 5), Schulz showed 3-and 4-year-olds how a magnetic object she called a "blicket" would stick to a table. When she then asked the children to play with a bunch of "blickets" that were not magnetized, the children were surprised to see that the "blickets" failed to stick, and played with the objects longer. However, when Schulz told the children that the nonmagnetic objects were called "dax," the children weren't surprised that these "new" objects failed to stick and they quickly lost interest in them—even though "dax" looked the same as "blickets."

Meanwhile, correlational research by Hirsh-Pasek and others backs up the claim that children learn best, in their early years, through play. In one study, she found no differences in academic achievement by first grade between children who had gone to "academic" preschools versus those who'd gone to more play-oriented preschools. She did, however, find that the children from academic preschools were more anxious.

Hirsh-Pasek emphasizes, however, that children in play-oriented schools must still learn content.

"I think many [researchers] would say that we cannot have a rich education that consists of solely free play. The evidence here is clear. Preschoolers who are exposed to social problem solving, math and reading are better prepared for the transition to school and do better in early elementary school... The issue here is not whether we should have content for children, but how it should be presented."

She adds: "What's happened is that this has become a warring faction between direct instruction, which has a narrow focus on reading and math, and playful learning. But these two foci are not incompatible. Playful learning leads to literacy and math skills."

Champions of frivolity

Hirsh-Pasek, Elkind and other researchers who agree with them believe they are swimming against the tide when it comes to convincing parents and policymakers to give children the space to explore and play.

In 1981, Elkind published the now-classic book "The Hurried Child," warning against trying to push children into academics and adulthood too soon. In the 28 years since that book was first published, he says the hurrying has only accelerated. His most recent book, "The Power of Play," (Da Capo Press, 2007), focuses specifically on how children are losing free, unstructured playtime, and the importance of play for children's development.

Hirsh-Pasek, too, has written books, including a guide for parents called, "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards" (Rodale Books, 2003), that encourage them to put down the cards and instead play blocks with their children, read to them and encourage make-believe play.

But Elkind worries that efforts like his and Hirsh-Pasek's are "a drop in the bucket" against educational toymakers' marketing millions. Hirsh-Pasek, meanwhile, believes her most difficult opponent is fear—parents' and societies' fear of children falling behind.

"None of us want a kid left behind," she says. "But we have to ask, what are the skills we want our kids to have?"

Parents might think that the most critical skills—reading, writing and math—require early and intense instruction. But according to Hirsh-Pasek, just as important are creativity, critical thinking and the ability to learn from failure—all skills best learned through play.