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As back to school season swirls around us, I have noticed a common topic of discussion among early childhood folks: PLAY.

That’s great news!

I am a huge supporter of play in early childhood settings, which will come as no surprise to long-time readers of my blog. Lately, however, something has really caught my attention in the ways we early childhood professionals talk about play. In effort to prove the importance of play, we dissect it down to its component parts and articulate it’s value for the children’s futures:

  • We identify the math and problem solving skills embedded in block towers.
  • We name the self regulation and physical coordination honed on the slide.
  • We articulate the early literacy skills refined through invented writing in dramatic play corners.

I think talking about play in this way has value because it makes play easier to defend. If we know that playing makes deposits towards a child’s future self, we are justified in including play as part of high-quality early childhood environments. In short, this kind of defense of play is the language that adults speak and understand. “Playing isn’t a waste of time, because look at how much the kids are learning!”

But, I think talking about play only in relationship to the child’s future self is a symptom of our cultural misunderstanding of the function of play along with our deep anxiety about whether or not children will be prepared to meet the future demands of school (and life!) if “all they do all day is play.”

As early childhood educators, what would we say if children’s play actually didn’t make a difference in their lives as future adults? If play was something that children did, not because it made them into better or more competent adults, but because it was a critical element of experiencing the world as a child. Would we still work so hard to defend it?

You see, I believe that the more we situate the value of play in the future returns of successful adulthood, the more we strip children of their value as human beings with agency and dignity in the present. Children’s play does not have to be measured by the yardstick of adulthood in order to have value. Children’s play does not have to prepare them for the classroom in order to be important.

Children’s play is important because it’s a tool they use to understand the world and their place in it. Play provides the rich context for children to engage with peers and create their own valuable peer culture, something that exists outside of and apart from adults. Play is important not because we adults decide it is important, but because children – through their insatiable drive to play – say it’s so.

I encourage you to keep looking to play as a source of insight about the kinds of skills children develop for their future role as adult citizens of this world. But set that agenda on the back burner, and start paying attention to play because it’s what children do, and therefore, it’s important.

Emily Plank is a writer and consultant in the field of early childhood education. Her book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood, has won acclaim for its innovation and fresh perspective on children. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Child Studies at Link√∂ping University in Sweden where her reading and schoolwork is a constant source of new ideas that she enjoys sharing with the world. She lives with her husband and three young children in Lausanne, Switzerland.