10 reasons kindergarteners need play + social skills—more than academics

What do you remember about kindergarten? I remember the adventure of riding the bus. I remember my teacher. And—most of all—I remember playing. Unfortunately, research indicates kindergarten has become more academically focused at the expense of play in recent years.


In response, there’s a growing movement to encourage more play. Between the rise of forest schools, parents getting in on the cause and teachers pushing back, we may soon see more play in the school day. Which is great, because there are some important benefits:

1. It develops social skills

Of course literacy and math skills are important, but sharing, caring and making friends are important lessons, too—and can set the stage for a successful academic career. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health proves kids who hone their social skills in kindergarten are more likely to graduate high school and college.

2. It helps literacy skills

At its core, pretend play is really about telling stories. Whether your kindergartner is a dragon, an elf or a mommy cooking plastic eggs on a plastic stove, they’re exploring a narrative with other characters (kids) and developing literacy skills in the process, according to researchers.

3. It improves motor skills

Kids in kindergarten are clumsy at best. If we want them to be a little less accident prone by first grade, play really is the best prescription. Research shows kindergarten play improves the fundamental motor skills kids need to become physically active for life.

4. It creates engaged citizens

Kindergarten today, volunteer tomorrow: It turns out that kindergarten playtime spent engaging with one’s classmates is a good predictor of future civic engagement, according to a study led by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The research published in Applied Developmental Science links classroom-based play in kindergarten to eighth-grade participation in extracurricular activities such as drama, music clubs and sports. Previous research indicates that kind of extracurricular activity makes kids more likely to volunteer, vote and engage with elected officials later in life.

6. Play at school is different from play at home

According to a study in the American Journal of Play, while many kindergarten teachers focus on academics, almost all see at-school play as beneficial to students socially. Many of the teachers noted playing with classmates is different than the kind of playing kids do at home, which often involves screen time or other solo pursuits.

7. It sets them up for success

The focus on academics in kindergarten classrooms is driven by our desire to see our kids learning. But, as research indicates, they’re better at learning when we let them play. Studies show kids in play-based kindergarten classrooms end up equally as good or better at reading than peers in more structured classes. On top of that, they’re more likely to go on to become well-adjusted, healthy adults.

8. It encourages activity

Free play often leads to active or even rambunctious play. That’s the kind of play that fights obesity and helps kids develop a love of moment that goes beyond kindergarten.

9. It’s a stress reliever

As playtime has declined over the years, experts have witnessed a rise in anxiety, depression and attention problems in school kids. More research published in the American Journal of Play suggests the increased anxiety kids are experiencing is caused by stress inducing, adult-led activities (academics, coached sports and other highly supervised experiences) that have crowded play time out of their days.

10. It makes them happy

According to the same study in the American Journal of Play, play is the favorite activity of kindergarten kids—and should be given priority over structured, adult-led activities. That happiness isn’t temporary, either, as many psychological benefits of play establish mentally healthy mindsets that persist through life.

As any adult will know, there will be plenty of time for tests and homework later. For now, let’s allow our children to learn through playing as much as possible.

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