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Preserving the art of play

By Brandy Browne

Psychologist and play advocate David Elkind states, “The decline of children’s free, self-initated play is the result of the perfect storm of technological innovation, rapid social change, and economic globalization” (Macnamara, 2016, p 53). A culture that seems to digitalize everything is squandering the type of play necessary for young children to cultivate creativity and problem solving skills necessary for success as an adult. Deborah Macnamara (2016), author of Rest play grow: Making sense of preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), calls for action that will preserve play. She states, “It means pushing back against the cultural tide that sees play as frivolous and unproductive instead of as the bedrock upon which our children realize their full human potential” (p 55). Jean Piaget, renowned developmental psychologist, once asked an audience, “Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?” (Macnamara, 2016, p 61). The short answer is “Let them play!” Play develops critical thinking skills, communication skills, language, self expression, and cognitive skills. Through the use of their hands and tangible concrete objects, children can begin to make sense of the larger abstract ideas in the world around them. 

Moreover, play allows those that have experienced trauma to express deep emotions in a safe way. Bruce Perry (2006), author of The boy who was raised as a dog, recalls how one of his clients reenacted the abuse she had endured at the hands of someone who broke into her family home, murdered her mother, and attempted to murder her before leaving her for dead. The child could not discuss the trauma she had endured with words, but her imaginary play created the same graphic scene over and over each day until she processed it. Mcnamara (2016) tells the story of five year old Clayton, who was distraught over being separated from his mother during her cancer treatment. He began to play a wrestling game where he pretended to be a dog with his father every night. He would play and wrestle until he was completely exhausted from expending his energy into processing his intense emotions, and then he would sleep peacefully throughout the night. 

So, what does preserving play look like? Intentional spaces void of structured activities must be created, and those spaces must be utilized with integrity (void of adult agendas). Only when the environment is free of distractions and competing events will true imaginary, expressive, exploratory play occur. Incorporate play into rituals and routines. For example, parents may decide how many play dates a child can engage in during a certain length of time, and parents can also set limits for hours within the day with no interruptions to expressive play. Within the classroom, Mcnamara (2016) argues that preserving play is just as important. She states, “There is no evidence globally to suggest that reading at age five leads to greater academic success. Furthermore, pushing academics too soon can negatively impact a child’s disposition and motivation to learn” (p 74). The purpose of preschool and early childhood programs should remain on using purposeful play to help develop the social skills young children need and fostering the creativity that will enable them to become innovative thinkers and problem solvers throughout life. 


Macnamara, D. (2016). Rest play grow: Making sense of preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Aona Books.

Perry, B. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. Basic Books. 

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