Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Want your child to love learning? Play more, stress less

Posted May 15

Hundreds came out for the opening of Sassafras All Children's Playground, Laurel Hills Park, 3808 Edwards Mill Rd., Raleigh.

Editor's note: Alison Gammage, head of the Lower School at St. Timothy's School in Raleigh, shares her expertise today.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist known for his pioneering work in the field of child development, said “play is the work of children,” but I believe it must also be the work of adults.

Perhaps because I spend so much time with, and thinking about, children I am often reflecting about what makes for a great education. Rigor is perhaps the most commonly used word to describe "good education." But the definition is not helpful in furthering our understanding of how children learn. It can even lead us in the wrong direction.


1. (a) Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: severity. (b) The quality of being unyielding or inflexible. (c) An act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty. 2. A tremor caused by a chill. 3. A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.

4. Strict precision or exactness.

If we do nothing else, we must let our kids play, and I would argue that play and rigor are not in opposition. But rather, play is the foundation of rigor.

Most young children will follow an adult’s directions, but the "gold standard" for educators is to teach children how to be independent learners. They are children who pursue learning when the adult is not there, because they want to learn. This is the central role of playful learning.

Sometimes when people hear "play," they automatically think of something that takes no planning or preparation, but, at St. Timothy’s, play has three dimensions in our curriculum.

  • First, "play as action."
  • Second, "play as structure."
  • And third, "play as place."

This is very intentional. We believe the most effective education occurs when children are engaged, excited and motivated by a view of learning designed specifically for children under 10 years old. And that takes a lot of thought and planning!

But how do we explain the importance of playful learning and child-centered classrooms to adults, who no longer remember what it was like to be a child, but are still committed to ensuring their children become academically strong students as effectively as possible? And how is it done in a society that downplays the unique needs young children have?

A simple example would be to compare two activities: Completing a page of math problems (traditionally, seen as rigorous) and playing a game that requires the same algebraic thinking skills.

The second "play-based" activity will not only quickly lead a child to independent learning, but will allow opportunity to increase the difficulty of the task and the student’s stamina, without increasing anxiety or fear of failure in the child. This can be called the “play as action” approach or making learning fun!

Parents might ask, “Isn’t play during school frivolous?”

Playful structure invites teachers and parents and children to initiate and maintain a degree of playfulness in the child’s whole learning experience. Thus, playfulness becomes characteristic of the interaction between adult and child.

Perhaps a better way to describe the dichotomy is to think of “play-time versus task-time." Play converts a task to fun. For example, laying or clearing the table is much more fun when the child is the waiter and the parents are guests at the restaurant (the dinner table). Next time you need a small child to stand still, ask them to pretend to be a soldier on guard. Or, if you need a child to really listen, put a sock on your hand and let your "sock hand" do the talking.

Children can learn while at play through their own experience, through their interaction with peers and through their interactions with adults. But they also need time to engage in this unstructured play, which is why we have two to three recess times a day for our students and plan "talk breaks” for our elementary students thought their day as well. The idea is that play provides a context for learning.

Lastly, play as place provides a natural, comfortable setting for children to develop.

Education is often understood as the sole responsibility of parents and teachers. Reggio Emilia, an educational approach developed after World War II in Italy, identifies a third teacher between child, teacher, and parent: The environment.

Our classrooms our designed for our students. Ergonomic stools help our youngest students begin to enjoy "seat work." Smart Boards and displays are at the student’s eye level. And resources, which are designed for developing fine motor and cognitive abilities, are available. (Why do so many of us have a poor pencil grip? Because we were asked to hold a thin pencil before we were developmentally ready).

Play as place reminds us that developmental appropriateness is paramount, and less is definitely more. Uncluttered space with fewer, simpler toys (or just taking the batteries out) can make more "space" for play to develop.

Froebel, Montessori, Piaget, all the giants in the child development field, have said that play is central to a child’s development. But, in our modern, busy world, we may need to help parents give themselves permission to let children just play.

Making a special potion out of toothpaste or creature out of a milk carton and pasta may seem like a waste of time or silly, but so much learning is happening. Perhaps for a generation consumed with ensuring they do everything they can for their children, and at times feeling guilty they are not doing enough, letting their children play just seems too easy an option.

But, next time you watch a child engrossed as they order their "stuffies" on the bed or their toy cars on a shelf for the 100th time, know that great academic skill-building is happening, silently and naturally.

We need to do nothing but smile and remember the magic of being a child.

Alison Gammage is the Head of Lower School at St. Timothy's School in Raleigh. Gamage, a native of the United Kingdom, studied theology at Oxford and then went on to complete a master's degree in education, followed by a master's degree in special education in the United States. She served as a teacher and administrator at schools in Washington, D.C., before moving to Raleigh to join St. Timothy's.


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