The Chalk Blog

The Importance of Play in the Classroom

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This week's blog post writer, Susanne Leslie, is a Curriculum & Instruction Specialist with Learners Edge. Prior to joining the Edge, Susanne worked as a Parent Educator in Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) with parents of 0-5 year olds which, we think, gives her special insight into the importance of being little. Susanne is the proud parent of two daughters.

Montessori quote 12.24 blog

Polar bears in zoos repeat their movements. Hovering outside their paint-chipped pens, zoo goers watch as two-ton bears dive into the water, climb out, pace, repeat. Over and over again these majestic bears demonstrate what being caged does to an animal designed for movement and activity.

On a recent trip to an educators’ conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, I listened to Minnesotan, parent educator, and 2011 Teacher of the Year Katy Smith share this story to a room packed with educators hungry to find answers about how to bring play back to the classroom. As she spoke, projected on the large screen, a polar bear.

In my former career as a Parent Educator, I was given both the opportunity and responsibility of describing what children learn in the early childhood classroom, and to remind families about the necessity of play for learning and development. To do this, I liked to gather families at the observation window to watch as their children:

  • Explored their imaginations in the dramatic play area, dressing up and pretending to be teachers, doctors, fire fighters. Some taking charge and leading, others following
  • Discovered the “give-and-take” of friendship, like playing cooperatively and practicing giving directions and asking questions
  • Grew in their understanding about consequences when they were forceful, quiet, boisterous, or if they didn't share, or take turns
  • Scooped, poured, measured at the sensory table, learning about cause and effect, physics in action
  • Blew bubbles outside into the cold air, estimating how long the bubbles would take to freeze, science and predictions
  • Squeezed, rolled, picked up, and sliced the colorful Play-Doh and "goop,” designed to develop hand strength needed for grasping and writing
  • Climbed, reached, ran, and soared- acquiring strength, agility, and dexterity, using their designed-to-move bodies as they made brain and body connections
  • Paged through books looking at pictures, pretending to read and growing more confident with words and sounds
  • Combining, taking away, or adding blocks, guessing how many would fit in an area, learning about spatial relationships and math
  • Swirled and swayed to music, learning kinesthetically, and discovering the mechanics of movement

Play is not more important than science, literacy, physics, and math. It IS science, literacy, physics, and math.

  • Play teaches children they are in control of their own lives, they learn to solve problems, experience joy, how to get along, empathy
  • Play is nature’s way of ensuring young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills needed to successfully develop into adulthood
  • Play in the classroom fosters improvements in mathematics, language, literacy, and social-emotional skills for children from both low-and high-income environments
  • Because the benefits of play are so extensive, play has been asserted as a developmental necessity
  • Play should be viewed as a valuable classroom activity that enables children to develop a wide variety of social and academic skills
  • Through play, children learn how to get along with others, inhibit their impulses, and regulate their emotions
  • In play, children make friends and learn to get along with others as equals (Gray 2011, Lynch 2015)

Despite the benefits and research supporting play in the classroom, schools have seen a steady decline in the amount of time devoted to play.Testing, lack of support, judgment from colleagues or administration, parental and family expectations, and an absence of understanding of child development combine to make it challenging for educators to take a stance for play, as evidenced in the following comments:

  • If playing is happening in my classroom I am looked down upon
  • I’ve been told my students should be in their seats doing pencil and paperwork to prepare for first grade
  • Pressure not to play often came from principals whose background was in high school teaching and had no experience with early childhood education
  • An administrator told me “You are going to stop singing and start teaching, right?”
  • Teachers feel pressure to call play centers “developmental centers,” “work centers” or to describe play as “active learning”
  • A teacher suggested that dramatic play centers should be removed from kindergarten classrooms because “there is a time crunch and not enough time for play”                                                                                  

Losing play in the classroom is having detrimental effects on children. One first grade teacher noted that students are arriving in the primary classroom with weak hand control, unable to grasp, which he attributes to the loss of play, specifically, the removal of manipulatives like Play-Doh, used to increase hand strength when children are young. Many teachers are experiencing the burden of ever-increasing sit-still time, particularly in literacy instruction, math instruction, testing, and test prep. Educators are being asked to teach young students things they are not yet developmentally ready to learn (Miller & Almon, 2013).


In the book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, author Daniel Pink discusses artistic, empathetic, and playful abilities—and emphasizes the need for opportunities for creativity and play throughout childhood. Pink describes our future economy as an “imagination economy” and warns that without opportunities for play, our children will find the future challenging. Pink states “people have to be able to do something that can’t be outsourced, something that’s hard to automate and that delivers on the growing demand for things that require our imagination.” (Pink, 2006)

One company, leading the way with a creative and playful work environment is Google. Explore the Google campus (other companies are following Google’s lead) and you will see a workplace where creativity is championed. Lego stations, Tinker-Toy-like workstations and scooters are just three examples of what you find at Google. They understand “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration” and that many ideas are born of creativity and play.

“Sitting still and being quiet is not a marketable job skill.”

                                                           -Lisa Murphy, author

In a report from The Alliance for Childhood, loss of play is contributing to an increase in aggression and anger in young children. Play allows children opportunities for self-education and self-regulation. Without these opportunities to practice, children are finding it difficult to control their emotions and impulses (Miller & Almon, 2013). And the United States is experiencing an obesity epidemic. As we chip away at play in the classroom, take away recess and physical education, then feed students nutritionally bankrupt meals, it is easy to make the connection. The Centers for Disease Control reports 14.4 million children and adolescents are affected by obesity in the U.S. (CDC, 2020).

Want ideas for bringing play back to the classroom? This FREE, on-demand webinar showcases Parent Educator and Teacher of the Year Katy Smith as she shares what the research says about the importance of play, how loss of play affects students, her ideas for getting play back into the classroom, and how you can become a play advocate.


Or, enroll in any of these courses:

Play can be challenging if one has never played. Self-directed play can feel foreign to young teachers who grew up with cell phones and organized sports. It’s important for students, but it is just as important for teachers to play, too.

Whether you’re having a good or tough day, remember…play!



  1. At Google a Place to Work and Play (2012, March 16). Retrieved from 12/2016.
  2. Childhood Obesity Data. Center for Disease Control. Retrieved from 12/2016.
  3. Dodge, T. D. (2010). Research Foundation: The Creative Curriculum.
  4. Gray, P. (2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play.
  5. Lewis, L. (2016). Play: The foundation of children’s learning. Red Leaf Press. St. Paul, MN.
  6. Lynch, M. (2015). More Play, Please: The perspective of kindergarten teachers on play in the classroom. American Journal of Play.
  7. Miller, E. & Almon, J. Alliance for Childhood. Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why children need to play in school. allianceforchildhood.orgRetrieved 12/2016.
  8. Pink, D. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right brainers will rule the future. Penguin Group. New York, NY

Topics: Early Childhood

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