Reclaiming Play: Helping Children Learn and Thrive in School
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
First Published in Exchange, March/April, 2008

Child development theorists, researchers and educators have long known that play is one of children’s most valuable resources, vital to their social, emotional, and cognitive growth. Through play children make sense of the world around them and work through new experiences, ideas, and feelings. But in recent years, a host of social forces and trends—the influence of media, commercialism, fast-paced family life, academic pressures in schools—have been eroding healthy play, robbing children of this valuable resource for optimal growth and learning.

Children today are playing less both at home and at school. According to a national Kaiser Family Foundation survey, children in the two to seven-year-old age group now average about three hours per day in front of screens—time they don’t spend in active, child-centered play (Rideout, et al, 2003). As more parents work, and work longer and harder than they did a generation ago, and without a system of quality national childcare and after school care, the television has increasingly occupied a central place in children’s lives, edging out other activities including play. In our nation’s schools, teachers have had to cut recess and unstructured play in order to meet pressures in a climate of test-driven curriculum. The focus on academic skills and scripted teaching, alarmingly, has pushed down even to preschools and kindergartens where play experiences are disappearing.

But not only do kids today have less time to play, many also have a diminished capacity to play. The powerful influences of media and marketing have undermined children’s ability to create and be in control of their own play. This influence was first felt after the deregulation of children’s television in the mid-1980s, when it became legal to market toys and products to children that were directly tied to TV. Right after this policy change, teachers began observing significant changes in children’s play, reporting that it looked less spontaneous and was conforming to mass media models, especially those from television (Levin & Carlsson-Paige, 2007). Today, children commonly imitate in play what they have seen in movies, video games and other electronic media as well as TV, and use media-linked toys that further encourage replication of what’s been seen on the screen. And often what children imitate are the models of aggression and violence, so pervasive in entertainment media. I have heard countless descriptions like this one from Candace, who attended a workshop I gave recently: “I’m concerned because the children in my day care center don’t know how to play. All of their play is scripted. It’s just an imitation of whatever popular media show they’re into.” And Margaret who said, "I hate Star Wars. It has taken over the classroom. It's all the kids can think about--they're obsessed with it, mostly the boys. They turn everything into a light saber and start fighting."

We educators have an important role to play in taking back healthy play for children today. There is so much we can do to help them create play that truly meets their needs—play that gives children a strong foundation for learning, the emotional and mental readiness to learn, and the social and emotional skills they need for success in school and in life.

Play and Learning

Not long ago, I visited a kindergarten classroom where two children, whose names I soon overheard were Tania and Jasmine, were in the dramatic play area playing “sisters.” I watched these two girls as they searched through the dress up box to find two identical blue scarves to tie around their waists. Then Jasmine said, “Let’s make pizza.” “Yea,” said Tania, “we can put lots of stuff on it.” Tania took a large flat plate and carefully placed eight round circles on it that she took from a container. “These are the tomatoes,” she said. Jasmine took color cubes from another container and put one on top of each of the circles. “And here are the meat things,” she said, and then suggested, “Let’s feed it to the baby!” “No,” Tania exclaimed, “babies can’t eat pizza—they don’t have any teeth!”

As Tania and Jasmine played “sisters,” not only were they having fun, they were learning. Without thinking about it, the two children were working on math concepts such as sorting and one-to-one correspondence when they searched for matching scarves and put tomatoes and “meat things” on their pizza. They were developing social skills as they communicated their plans, heard each other’s ideas, and cooperated on their common project. Seeing their interest in sorting and matching, their teacher Lisa set out unifix cubes on a table later that morning and encouraged the girls to sort them by color and match them to pictures of cubes on printed cards.

By the next time I visited this classroom, the dramatic play area had been converted into a full blown “restaurant” bursting with activity and excitement. The children had taped a sign at the entrance that said “AR RSTRNT” (our restaurant) and several of them were writing the words “pie, pizza and soup” with Lisa, who had suggested they make menus. On a table was a “cash register” made of large legos that held strips of paper handwritten with numbers that children were calling “money.”

When Tania and Jasmine pretended to make pizza and then later worked with unifix cubes, they were gaining valuable experience with early math concepts. When children manipulate materials in play, they are building a foundation of understanding for the competencies and skills we want them to learn in school. We can’t tell children to understand number, for example, by having them copy number symbols onto paper or by reciting the names of numbers. They have to “discover” for themselves what numbers mean—for example that five unifix cubes and five hats and five blocks are all the same quantity—and this they can only do through hands-on experience with materials. Once children understand the concept of number, the symbols such as the number symbol “5” have real meaning because children have constructed this knowledge for themselves, or as Piaget might say, they have “invented” it. When children construct their ideas through play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, their knowledge builds in a hand-over-hand way that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning through play that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts.

One of the most important ways we can help children build an understanding of concepts we want them to learn in school is to provide them with long blocks of time that allow them to get deeply engrossed in play. And we can maximize learning by providing open-ended materials such as blocks, play dough, building and collage materials, generic dolls and animals. These are the materials that foster extended play and new learning (Fromberg, 1997). With open-ended materials children can work on concepts at their developmental level, bring their own narratives to the materials, and make just about anything they need or want. Low-specificity toys are a stark contrast to the highly structured single-purpose, media-linked toys that flood store shelves today. As we observe the concepts children are working on in play, we can provide follow-up activities to extend learning as Lisa did when she engaged Tania and Jasmine with unifix cubes and encouraged children to make menus and money for their restaurant. There is a compelling and growing body of research to show that play is essential for children’s academic success, and when teachers intervene to scaffold new learning, the benefits of play are especially potent (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002; Singer et al, 2003).

Ready to Learn

Through play children build the foundation they need to understand the concepts they learn in school, but play offers an even deeper benefit as well. Through play children continually regain their sense of equilibrium which is what allows them to greet learning tasks in school with openness and confidence—to have the emotional and mental readiness to say: I can do this task and I want to do it!” Let me explain this with the example of Ruby, a child in my kindergarten class years ago, who restored her equilibrium through play and was then able to engage in learning once again. In the second half of the school year, Ruby was hospitalized with “spider meningitis,” as she would later tell her classmates, and was out of school for at least three weeks. Upon her return to the classroom, Ruby headed straight to the dramatic play corner where I had set up a “hospital,” put on a white coat, and was soon leaning over Sam, one of her favorite play partners and now her “patient.” I remember Ruby listening to his heart with a stethoscope, giving him a “shot,” and directing him to eat some “medicine”—a bowl full of wooden cubes she’d mixed up just for him. Ruby spent much of the next few weeks in the same play area, hovering over one willing patient after another. Finally, very slowly, she began spending more time in the art, science, and literacy areas she had so enjoyed before she got sick.

Ruby’s dramatic play during this period was vital for helping her work through her hospital experience. As she played, Ruby was using scenes she remembered from her actual hospital stay, but mixing them with ideas from her own imagination. Only Ruby knew what she needed to do, and only through this particular play could she gain a sense of mastery over what she had been through and thus find her equilibrium once again.

Though we may barely notice it, this is ideally what children are always doing in play. They take pieces of experience and transform them into something new, re-ordering things in terms that make sense to them and gaining mastery over the challenges they’ve encountered. As they create their own scenarios and narratives, children come to understand and integrate what they’ve experienced in life—the birth of a sibling, an argument overheard between parents, a scary scene viewed in a movie. In this way, play serves children’s learning even more deeply than we sometimes recognize because it’s through the process of play that children continually return to emotional and mental balance and become ready to learn.

We educators can do a lot to encourage the kind of beneficial play that Ruby created after her hospital stay. But children today may need more help engaging in play that truly meets their needs. We may have to become more involved than we did in the past to help children create sustained and original play. How might we do this? First, of course, we observe kids’ play closely and with curiosity: what concepts and issues are they working on? What themes and storylines interest them? The answers to these questions will guide what we do next. We might decide to ask an open-ended question while children are playing—one that could spark a new idea or direction for play. For example, when Tania and Jasmine were making “pizza,” their teacher Lisa could help them extend their play by asking, “Who will eat this pizza?” Or, “Do you need a place where you can eat the pizza?” We might make suggestions for new materials or directions for play. Janice, a kindergarten teacher, told me that when the children in her class were engaging in repetitive Star Wars play, she introduced a large oar into the block area and this one prop ignited interest in a new play theme. And Jim told me that he encourages kids to engage more deeply in play by suggesting they make their own props such as “radios” or “telescopes.” And Charlene said that at times, she briefly enters children’s play to make specific suggestions. She gave an example of a time that the children in her class were playing “robber” and someone was “injured.” Charlene asked to join in and soon said, “There’s someone injured on Center Street. Who can get an ambulance?” and this, Charlene said, inspired a new round of play centered on themes of rescue and healing.

Social and Emotional Learning through Play

Writers in the emerging field of social and emotional learning (SEL) list many skills and competencies that are vital to success in school and in life, such as self awareness, the ability to manage distressing emotions, increased sensitivity to how others feel, perspective-taking, impulse control, establishing positive relationships, and learning to resolve conflicts. Researchers in SEL have been able to show conclusively that social and emotional skills and competencies result in improved academic achievement and higher grades in school. (CASEL, 2007).

The social and emotional skills considered vital for success in school begin to build in the early years and to a large extent, they develop through play. When Tania and Jasmine played “sisters,” for example, they were communicating, hearing each other’s ideas, and cooperating on their common project. Jasmine gained experience with perspective taking when Tania told her, “Babies can’t eat pizza—they don’t have any teeth!” And when Ruby became the doctor in her hospital play, administering shots and medicine to her classmates, she was likely managing the emotions of fear and helplessness she experienced while ill. As children play, they also learn to control their impulses. They have to stay within the boundaries of the roles they create in their imaginary situations and in so doing, they develop more self-regulatory social behavior (Vygotsky, 1933, 1978).

When children play together, conflicts are commonplace because young kids tend to see things from their own perspective and don’t easily understand how their actions affect others. But today, conflicts among children are increasing as they try out the models of aggression and violence they’ve absorbed from the media and have diminishing opportunities to develop social skills through spontaneous play with other children. Because of this, it is more important than ever that we intervene in children’s play to resolve conflicts in ways that help them learn social and emotional skills. With the next example of Curtis, you can see how play conflicts give us an opening to teach children positive skills for getting along.

Nadine, the mom of three-year-old Curtis, asked my advice about an incident that happened at Curtis’ family day care site recently. Nadine explained that Curtis was riding a tricycle and he bumped into another child, who then fell off his bike. The teacher made Curtis sit on the steps for a time-out. Later Curtis was back on a trike, and this time he bumped into a little girl named Madeline, who fell off her tricycle and got a bloody nose. The teacher then told Curtis that he couldn’t ride at all anymore. Nadine asked me, “Is this a good way to teach Curtis how to get along with other kids?”

When Curtis got back on the tricycle the second time, he did just what he’d done earlier. The time-out hadn’t given him any new ideas about what to do instead of driving into other kids. What Curtis needed in this situation was to learn how to interact more positively with other children. Three-year-olds like Curtis tend to focus on only one thing at a time and don’t yet think logically about cause and effect, making it possible to crash into another child without any real understanding of the hurt this could cause. Children Curtis’s age need adults to point out, in concrete terms that make sense to them, how their actions affect others. This kind of intervention can help children develop empathy and caring and build awareness and skill about how to get along with others.

After first helping Madeline, the teacher could have brought Curtis over and said in a matter-of-fact voice without blame, “Curtis, Madeline got hurt and her nose was bleeding. She got hurt when you bumped into her. Can you do anything to help her feel better—can you say any words to help her?” The teacher might also have asked Madeline, “Do you want to say anything to Curtis?” or, “What can Curtis do to help you feel better?” Asking questions like these can stimulate children’s thinking and encourage them to invent for themselves the words to say, helping them build communication skills in a meaningful way.

When we send children to time out as Curtis’ teacher did, we aren’t giving them any new ideas or skills for how to get along with others. Especially today, as we see so many children in great need of learning social and emotional skills, we can do a lot to foster this critical learning by intervening in ways that encourage skill building. And as research now tells us, we’ll not only be helping children become more socially competent, we’ll be giving them tools that will increase their chances for academic success in school. A definitive meta-analysis of more than one hundred studies showed that students who had SEL not only got along better with others, but also learned more effectively and had higher grades and achievement test scores (Weissberg et al, 2007).

This is a time when societal influences are robbing children of healthy play, one of the most important vehicles they have for optimal development and learning. We educators need to step in—with the awareness and skill that is uniquely ours—to reclaim this powerful resource for children. Taking active steps to encourage imaginative and beneficial play that truly serves children’s needs will not only reclaim play for them, but also give children the best foundation possible for success in school and in their lives now and in years to come.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (December, 2007). “Background on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).” CASEL Briefs. Illinois: University of Illinois at Chicago.

Fromberg, Doris. (November, 1997). “What’s New in Play Research? Child Care Information Exchange.

Isenberg, J. & Quisenberry, N. (2002). “Play: Essential for all Children.” A position paper of the Association for Childhood Education International. Retrieved from:

Levin, D. E., & & Carlsson-Paige, N. (2004). The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rideout, V., Vandewater, E. A., Wartella, E. A. (2003). Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 4.

Singer, D., Singer, J., Plaskon, S. L., & Schweder, A. (2003). “A Role for Play in the Preschool Curriculum.” In Olfman, S., Ed. All Work and No Play: How Educational Reforms are Harming our Preschoolers. 43-70. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Vygotsky, L.S. [1933] 1978. “The Role of Play in Development.” In Mind in Society, eds. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, Scribner, S. & Souberman, E. 92-104. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.A., Taylor, R.D., Dymnicki, A.B., and O’Brien, M.U., “Promoting Social and Emotional Learning Enhances School Success: Implications of a Meta-Analysis.” Manuscript submitted for publication, 2007.

Adapted from Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World. by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Hudson Street Press, March, 2008.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch.  Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.