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Early Ed: The False Choice Between Play and Learning

Published:   December 12, 2011

Among early learning advocates, the fate of play continues to be hotly debated. In the past few months, several articles have stoked the conversation, including an article in Scientific American MInd questioning whether preschool includes enough playtime and a piece in The Washington Post about the District of Columbia Public Schools adopting a play-based curriculum called "Tools of the Mind" for its 3, 4 and 5 year olds.  The first piece seems to reinforce the misconception that preschool will replace play.  The latter article describes a program that envisions classrooms in which playful learning and intentional teaching co-exist.

To learn more about the relationship between play and learning, Lisa Guernsey invited Annie Murphy Paul -- journalist, author and mother of young children -- to talk about what she has uncovered in the reporting of her forthcoming book, Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.

They talk about some recent research on play-oriented learning by Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and her colleagues, which suggests that 4-year-olds learn more about how an object works when they are able to explore it instead of being told how to use it. They also discuss how play-based activities can help teachers meet early learning guidelines and standards. They talk about the problem with headlines like "the Death of Preschool," which was sometimes used in describing the Scientific American Mind article. Lastly, they chat about why it may be important to distinguish between different kinds of play, including the importance of unstructured play in the afternoons and weekends when young children are out of school. "I think we need to have a more nuanced sense of how play works for young children," Paul says.