The Birth of a Playful Movement

What happens if you have conducted academic research on children’s learning for years and consistently have findings that go against the grain of contemporary teaching practice? And what happens if you then convene an all-star cast of researchers to create principles on teaching and learning based on the research but that doesn’t seem to reverse the trend either? While some might give up and stick to their knitting, so to speak, these roadblocks only seem to energize Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University. And on Saturday October 3rd, the public in New York City’s Central Park will have a chance to enjoy her latest endeavor: The Ultimate Block Party. As she and others see it, it will be much more than a day of free family fun—it will be the launch of a movement in support of playful learning.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has conducted research for decades on the development of language and literacy with her long-time collaborator and friend, Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware. These studies show that children learn language best when parents build on and playfully extend conversations with them and when parents talk about what their children are interested in. These studies resulted in the cleverly-named 2003 book, Einstein Never Used Flashcards. Hirsh-Pasek was a member of the small group of researchers conducting the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s study on the long-term impact of child care. In that study, how children play is linked to long-term developmental advantages. And Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff have also both been editors of inarguably the most influential and rigorous journal in the field, Child Development, and have had many years of reviewing the best research on children’s learning.

In frustration with the gap between what science shows and what is happening at home and in school, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, and others convened a group of academics to write: A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool, a research-packed volume that shares the science in defense of what they call playful learning. They have investigated what aspects of play make the most difference and have settled on the concept of playful learning. They argue that children need both free and guided play. In free play, children fill their own space and time as they find ways to become the captain of the ship or the princess to be rescued. In guided play, children still command the choices, but adults are available as guides to enhance their learning.  They might put toys around the room that encourage particular exploration—blocks for building, for example—and guide discussions in ways that help children link those blocks to discoveries about math.

As Hirsh-Pasek would be the first to acknowledge, there have been many others who have been ardent and long-time champions for playful learning. David Elkind of Tufts University has been speaking out about the fact in 1981, 40% of children’s time was spent in play. By 1997, that number had shrunk to only 25%. The U.S. Department of Education found in 2005 that a significant number of children get little or no recess, and that first-graders in high-poverty schools are five times as likely to have no recess at all as children in wealthier communities. The Alliance for Childhood has created compelling research reports and manifestos on the importance of play. This year, the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival devoted a track to play, featuring Stuart Brown as well as the work of Dale Dougherty of Maker Faire and the playgrounds created by Darell Hammond of KaBOOM! and David Rockwell.

Despite the academic evidence and the powerful champions, playful learning continues to decline as an important part of children’s lives. One Saturday morning, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek was asking herself when “play had became a four letter word,” when a playful idea hit her. She was thinking about how the bright orange “Gates” created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and strung across New York’s Central Park had created a grand stage for the general public to experience art. She says:

It occurred to me that we could change the lens on learning if we start in Central Park. If families could experience learning in action and if they could see how play is an essential part of learning, then they could make the connections between what happens in the sandbox and the boardroom.

Hirsh-Pasek continues:

We have the equivalent of educational global warming. If we don’t get it right in our preschools, we will live with the ill effects 20 years from now when these kids enter the workforce. The scientists have aligned…now we need to come together to put that knowledge in the hands of parents, policymakers, and educators so that they can use it to build the skills needed for the 21st century.

Admitting that her ideas can be too big, Hirsh-Pasek called a few of her academic friends, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, some non-profits, media and some corporations and they convened a meeting. And thus, after months of planning, on October 3rd, in Central Park, a playful movement will be launched.

This is not just a message about play, Hirsh-Pasek says. “It is a message about the future of our country.”