from the Article
get your kids into college? Let them play”
By Erika Christakis and Nicholas Christakis, Special to CNN
and Nicholas Christakis says they see students at Harvard who have trouble
say kids better equipped to learn, interact, if taught using play-based
Play-based learning builds empathy, better
self-control, and problem solving skill
Editor's note: Erika Christakis, MEd, MPH, is
an early childhood teacher and former preschool director. Nicholas Christakis,
MD, PhD, is a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard University.
Together, they serve as Masters of Pforzheimer House, one of the undergraduate
residential houses at Harvard College.
(CNN) -- Every day where we work, we see our young
students struggling with the transition from home to school. They're all
wonderful kids, but some can't share easily or listen in a group.
Some have impulse control problems and have trouble
keeping their hands to themselves; others don't always see that actions have
consequences; a few suffer terribly from separation anxiety.
We're not talking about preschool children. These
are Harvard undergraduate students whom we teach and advise. They all know how
to work, but some of them haven't learned how to play.
Parents, educators, psychologists, neuroscientists,
and politicians generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to preparing
very young children for school: play-based or skills-based (flashcards and
rote). If you want your child to succeed in college, the play-based curriculum
is the way to go.
In fact, we wonder why play is not encouraged in
educational periods later in the developmental life of young people -- giving
kids more practice as they get closer to the ages of our students.
Why do this? One of the best predictors of school
success is the ability to control impulses. Children who can control their
impulse to be the center of the universe, and -- relatedly -- who can assume
the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn.
Psychologists call this the "theory of
mind": the ability to recognize that our own ideas, beliefs, and desires
are distinct from those of the people around us. When a four-year-old destroys
someone's carefully constructed block castle or a 20-year-old belligerently
monopolizes the class discussion on a routine basis, we might conclude that
they are unaware of the feelings of the people around them.
The beauty of a play-based
curriculum is that very young children can routinely observe and learn from
others' emotions and experiences. Skills-based curricula, on the other hand, are
sometimes derisively known as "drill and kill" programs because most
teachers understand that young children can't learn meaningfully in the social
isolation required for such an approach.
How do these approaches look different in a
classroom? Preschoolers in both kinds of programs might learn about hibernating
squirrels, for example, but in the skills-based program, the child could be
asked to fill out a worksheet, counting (or guessing) the number of nuts in a
basket and coloring the squirrel's fur.
In a play-based curriculum, by contrast, a child
might hear stories about squirrels and be asked why a squirrel accumulates nuts
or has fur. The child might then collaborate with peers in the construction of
a squirrel habitat, learning not only about number sense, measurement, and
other principles needed for engineering, but also about how to listen to, and
The child filling out the
worksheet is engaged in a more one-dimensional task, but the child in the
play-based program interacts meaningfully with peers, materials, and ideas.
Programs centered around constructive,
teacher-moderated play are very effective. For instance, one randomized,
controlled trial had 4- and 5-year-olds engage in make-believe play with adults
and found substantial and durable gains in the ability of children to show
self-control and to delay gratification. Countless other studies support the
association between dramatic play and self-regulation.
Through play, children learn to
take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share
goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment. By allowing children
to imagine walking in another person's shoes, imaginative play also seeds the
development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional
The real "readiness" skills that make for
an academically successful kindergartener or college student have as much to do
with emotional intelligence as they do with academic preparation.
Kindergartners need to know not just sight words and lower case letters, but
how to search for meaning. The same is true of 18-year-olds.
As admissions officers at selective colleges like
to say, an entire freshman class could be filled with students with perfect
grades and test scores. But academic achievement in college requires readiness
skills that transcend mere book learning. It requires the ability to engage
actively with people and ideas. In short, it requires a deep connection with
For a five year-old, this connection begins and
ends with the creating, questioning, imitating, dreaming, and sharing that
characterize play. When we deny young
children play, we are denying them the right to understand the world. By the
time they get to college, we will have denied them the opportunity to fix the
The opinions expressed in this commentary are
solely those of Erika and Nicholas Christakis.