When World War II began in 1939, many English children were sent from London to live with foster parents in the countryside. This opened up a whole new world and experience for the young children, as most of them had never been this far apart from their parents for an extended period of time. Anna Freud, a psychoanalyst, wanted to study the effects that this isolation had on these children. In a 1943 book, she wrote that the kids who had stayed with their families during the bombings in the UK were “much less upset” than the children who had experienced the bombing with foster parents. John Bowlby, who was Anna Freud’s contemporary, also studied social isolation in children; he wanted to see the social and emotional toll that extended hospital stays would have on children. His discoveries paved the way for him to develop his “attachment theory,” highlighting the clear, and at the time misunderstood, bond between parent and child. In the 21st century, more quantitative studies have been conducted on the human brain, and it is clear with current evidence that social isolation, especially in young children, is detrimental to brain development and health. Humans evolved to be social individuals and group thinkers; isolation does not mix well with our biological past. Children in the United States experience their own form of isolation, as their in-person school time is being spent with their heads swirling with information about standardized tests instead of building friendships with their classmates. It is not quite clear what the resulting effects will be when children lack this in-person form of connection with their peers; one can only utilize prior research to create some form of a hypothesis. It is now common knowledge that children need to play with one another in person in order to properly develop social, emotional, and intellectual skills, and that this play must be student-initiated in order to fully allow students to grow and prosper. Because of the benefits of interaction and play for young children, the US needs to revamp its standardized testing-focused approach to learning and adopt a system similar to Finland’s and other developed nations, even though the US’s standardized testing scores are low comparatively.
BENEFITS OF INTERACTION AND PLAY
Playing in school has almost become obsolete as school districts shift more toward achievement-based instruction and academic work; nonetheless, the benefits of playing cannot be underestimated. Edward Miller and Joan Almon describe “playing” in their book Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School as “activities that are freely chosen and directed by children and arise from intrinsic motivation.” The key part of this definition is that playing arises from the children’s desire to learn and discover on their own. If playing was directed by a teacher/parent, then the children would not have the same motivation to play and discover for discovery’s sake; they would primarily be motivated by the idea that they must please their authority figures. Shannon Lockhart, an early childhood specialist, describes in her article “Play: An Important Tool for Cognitive Development” that child-initiated play directly correlates to the development of language skills and literacy. When children are given the opportunity to initiate their own play, they are able to tell adults and their peers what choices they are making and why they are doing so; this way, children gain valuable emotional connections with others and expand their vocabulary as they learn to describe what is occurring in their surroundings. Furthermore, Lockhart states that when planning time before playing is given, children are able to use their memories and articulate their opinions when playing. Allowing children to plan out how they are going to play not only allows them to recall certain facts and information in their heads, but it also encourages them to have a structure and to think about their choices before making them, which is a lifelong skill.
Additionally, when children get to play how they want to, they are able to persevere through obstacles and learn to confront their negative emotions in a healthy manner. If they are given the “correct” answer in their developmental stage, when they don’t understand something in the future on the first try, there is potential for inappropriate emotional and physical behaviors to arise. Also, when children are allowed to play without interference from an external dialogue—from a teacher, parent, or older sibling—they are able to think for themselves and determine an identity for themselves. This makes children less reliant on others and more willing to formulate their own beliefs.
SCHOOL SYSTEM DILEMMA
Despite there being a plethora of benefits surrounding playing in the development of young children, states in the United States have drifted away from this approach and are swearing by their implementation of regimented standardized tests and assessments that can become overwhelming and stressful for kids at such a young age. Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School conducted research on this phenomenon and concluded that teacher-directed activities like literacy and math skills are now taking up a majority of the time that children spend in schools. Literacy and math skills, in the past, were generally saved for when children moved on to the first or second grade; this is indicative of the academic rigor and pressure that the country is putting on the younger generation. The authors of the Crisis in the Kindergarten article also found that, on average, free play, or “choice time,” is usually limited to around half an hour each day. The most important activities that promote essential cognitive benefits in young children are being allocated barely any time at all in the classroom. The USA is drifting away from allowing children to have dominion over their education and is instead looking for quantitative performance gains that do children a disservice.
America’s teachers are not being fully educated on the extent of childhood development and psychology. Crisis in the Kindergarten found that a lot of teachers state the importance of play in school, but few teachers are able to fully explain the correlation between play and learning. This lack of education leads to school administrators not valuing play time as much. Furthermore, teachers are shifting toward using a script and a routine when teaching that is not customizable to the students they are instructing. It is not correct to think that the same words and activities will work with all students; children need specific attention and help from their teachers. Scripts make it so that students that need additional help or a topic explained in a different way lag behind their peers and face the possibility of judgement and scrutiny.
FINLAND’S SCHOOL SYSTEM
Finland’s school system is vastly different from the United States’. Most Finnish children began their government-paid kindergarten at age 6 or 7. This demonstrates that Finnish people are in no rush to send their children to schools in an effort to learn math and literacy skills at a super young age. It is clear that they value kids’ experiences when they are young, and government officials and school administrators recognize that students do not have to be sent into a rigorous program right away. Timothy D. Walker, a writer for The Atlantic, visited a Finnish kindergarten in 2015 and reported on his findings. He stated that the teachers do not use the same lesson plan more than once a day in a week, playing ball games and running one day to doing stations on another. This goes directly against the way some teachers teach here in the US (the scripted teaching method). Teachers in Finland mix up activities every day, allowing students to develop a wide range of skills, while also keeping their children fit and healthy through plenty of physical activity and play time outdoors.
Walker described a situation in the classroom where the teachers allowed their students to choose a station to go to and pretend that they were ice cream vendors. Instead of sitting down with a pencil and paper and incessantly doing math problems, the children were allowed to learn math in a more realistic and fun method: the teacher helped their students calculate how much change they had to give their customers. This way, the students don’t feel like they are learning something, and it doesn’t feel like a stressful or mandated task. Children are only given a certain amount of time when they are allowed to be children, and forcing them to achieve high standards when they are little is damaging to their mental health and has no benefits when it comes to the children’s development. Finnish schools do an incredible job of letting their students formulate their own education based on their specific needs.
SHOULDN’T CHILDREN FOCUS ON ACADEMICS?
Some people will argue that children should be spending more of their time on academics instead of “playing,” which just sounds like they are not learning anything at all in the process. The United States has not invested a significant amount of its budget into education in a very long time, and our academic performance is showing this lack of funding. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, a cross-national examination, measures students’ performance in several academic subjects, such as reading and math. PISA’s most recent findings in 2019 found that the United States ranks 13th out of 79 countries in reading but only 36th out of 79 in math. This has made educators around the country nervous because the United States has not shown much improvement in these areas since the PISA test was first administered. In an extremely wealthy country like the US, one would expect that our scores should be higher because we have the ability to provide resources to schools to improve our learning across the states. These numbers are a good argument for those saying that young children need to start learning math and reading at a younger age in order to have them be ready for tests like the PISA; teaching these kids at a younger age the skills they will need for the future will allow this information to stick and will be easier for the kids to apply when they’re older. It’s not that simple, however; the data and science suggest otherwise. One study by Sebastian Suggate, a former student at New Zealand’s University of Otago who pursued a Ph.D. in educational psychology, compared children from “Rudolf Steiner” schools, who usually begin their literacy instruction around the age of 7 with state-run schools, who typically begin to receive instruction around age 5. By the time the children reached age 11, the former group caught up to the same level of literacy as the latter group. This demonstrates that if children do not receive any long-term benefits from being forced to receive literary instruction at a young age, is there a point? Could there actually be more disadvantages than advantages? It appears that children in the USA are losing out on their childhoods learning things that they should not have to learn until much later.
In order to solve this issue of children not being able to fully develop their emotional and social skills in today’s school climate, the first step from the federal government should be to examine how other systems in different countries work so well. We should examine how much time children spend in school and how they utilize that time. Also, it is important to discover the type of education that their primary school teachers are receiving and how that is different from the United States. It is possible that their teachers are being educated on the full breadth of knowledge there is surrounding the importance of playing in schools. We need to reevaluate where our budget and money is going; it is possible that we need to reallocate some of our money to education in order to provide more playing resources for children and education for teachers and ensure our children get the best education possible.