Tisha Shipley

Play: Is it Becoming Extinct?

Think back for a moment to when you were a young child. What games did you play? What things did you play at school? Do you remember your parents telling you to "go play?" I remember riding my bicycle, roller skating, getting together with the neighbor kids to play hide-and-seek, and Barbie's of course were my favorite! Today if a parent were to say "go play," would children know how or what to play? Are we allowing children enough play time to develop appropriately? Is play really play anymore? This article discusses how physical, imaginative, and free-choice play is almost non-existent and how teachers can ensure play in their environments and in the child's home.

In an era of high-stakes testing and teacher accountability, play—the cornerstone of child development—is slowly becoming extinct. As more and more schools are doing away with physical education, recess, and curriculum that allows for children to engage in play activities, teachers find themselves relying on more teacher-directed instruction (Van Hoorn, Nourot, Scales, & Alward, 2011). Teacher-directed instruction includes activities and lessons planned by the teacher. The teacher guides the entire daily schedule and this type of instruction is the most structured teacher-centered form of planning (Kostelnik, Soderman, and Whiren, 2011). In schools and homes today, free-choice play, imaginative play, and physical play are almost gone in a child's daily schedule.

In my first teacher meeting my first year of teaching, my principal stood in front of the library and said there is no fun. We will no longer have thematic units; there should be no fun activities in the classroom that do not pertain to the end of the year testing. I knew right then I had to make sure my centers, my curriculum, and all activities I planned were developmentally appropriate, where children would learn through play. I knew it had to make sense to not only me, but I had to get him to see the results, too. I had to prove to him that play was important for a child's development. At one point he actually moved my classroom because he said my children were too noisy. I called my classroom "structured-chaos:" my students were engaged in hands-on, developmentally appropriate activities where they were developing social, emotional, cognitive, and motor skills. I designed my centers to incorporate the Oklahoma PASS skills and regularly shared my students' progress reports with my principal, showing him that the "fun" was getting results.

What Has Happened to Physical Activity in Schools?

It is proven in research that children should spend at least 30 minutes per day being physically active (Hellmich, 2013). Physical activity does not only have to happen in a physical education class, but can and should occur throughout the entire school day. Physical activity promotes learning in many areas, including social/communication, empathy, self-regulation, creativity, imagination, and problem solving (Carlson, 2006). As professional educators, it is our job to make sure children are playing and developing these skills (Hellmich, 2013). Both physical education class and recess incorporate all of these skills and allow children to express themselves freely outside of the classroom—and we are slowly doing away with them.

In many schools, physical education class and recess have been done away with because of the No Child Left Behind Act that took place in 2001. These were taken away from a child's daily schedule so more time could be spent on reading and math (Hellmich, 2013). At home, more and more children are pulling out iPods, iPhones, game consoles, and other devices to play with, rather than running, riding bikes, or socially interacting with peers, one factor contributing to the ever-increasing childhood obesity epidemic. It just so happens that in play, physical, cognitive, and imaginative development occurs.

What Children Gain from Play and What Teachers Need to Do!

If there is no longer time for recess or physical education class, it is a teacher's job to make sure children are playing. From birth children use their bodies to learn (Carlson, 2006). As we set up our classroom environments we should focus on how children will use the room to learn.

How do you set up your classroom so that each student benefits? I remember the classrooms from my education experience where the teachers had centers set up where we would get to "practice" what we had learned. This is play; children learn and build on concepts by being allowed to choose and learn through their learning styles. If we set up areas in the classroom that allow students to succeed, learning becomes fun. Find useful information on how to set up centers in your classroom and thematic unit ideas that incorporate developmentally appropriate practices at http://busyclassroom.weebly.com/centers.html.

10 Ways to Incorporate Play for Students and Families

Play fosters all aspects of a child's development. In promoting a play-centered environment and curriculum, teachers are making short and long term investments in children's developmental domains (Van Hoorne et al., 2011). There are many ideas and resources teachers can use to help children develop through play and incorporate play-based learning activities into a daily schedule.

  1. Get creative. Take your assessments, align them to the Common Core State Standards, and identify ways to make meaningful activities where your students are learning through hands-on and or physical play lessons.
  2. Be a model for your students. Eat healthy and share pictures of you riding your bike, walking with your family, or your children playing on a classroom "All About Me" board.
  3. Plan engaging and playful activities for indoor and outdoor time. These can include hopscotch, jump rope, tag, memory, dice, rhythm, and parachute games.
  4. Limit technology time in your classroom. Instead, find ways to engage children in peer conversations, hands-on projects, and imaginative and creative learning.
  5. Promote choice. Ensure children in your classroom have daily time to engage in free-choice play.
  6. Set expectations. Make recess (outdoor play, weather permitting) a priority, not a reward.
  7. Involve families through your classroom. Give students ways to be play and be active with family members at home. Try sending a "take home bag" with games, ideas, and things to play.
  8. Write newsletters that give the benefits of play. Share resources on different community activities and places where families can be physically active. Some examples include the community health and wellness center offerings, lazer tag, different parks and recreational complexes, a local YMCA, churches that have gymnasiums, and local colleges that offer different family classes.
  9. Explain why it is important to limit technology and television time. Share ideas on things to do instead of watching television.
  10. Share your own experiences with families. Plan family field trips, park picnics, etc.

When children play and are physically active, they are more effective learners (Huges, p. 5). Children who have an active family enjoy playing and being active more than children who have sedentary families. We know how important play is in a child's development, why are we allowing it to become extinct? As professionals, don’t let play become nonexistent and don't allow families to underestimate the importance of playing. All teachers have to meet national, state, and local standards to prove student learning. This can be achieved through incorporating an environment with play-based learning, lessons, and even assessments.


Carlson, F. (2006). Big Body Play: Why boisterous, vigorous, and very physical play is essential to children's development and learning. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hellmich, N. (2013). Report: More PE, activity programs needed in schools. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2013/05/23/physical-education-schools/2351763/

Huges, D. (2009). Best Practices for Physical Activity: A Guide to Help Children Grow Up Healthy. Retrieved from http://www.nemours.org/content/dam/nemours/www/filebox/service/preventive/nhps/paguidelines.pdf

Kostelnik, M., Soderman, A., & Whiren, A. (2011). Developmentally appropriate curriculum: Best practices in early childhood education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Van Hoorn, J., Nourot, P., Scales, B., & Alward, K. (2011). Play at the Center of the Curriculum. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Publishing.

Tisha Shipley is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Ashford University. She received a doctorate of education in Curriculum and Instruction from Northcentral University and a master's degree in Elementary Education/Administration and a bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education from Northwestern Oklahoma State University. She has taught multiple grade levels at Moore Public Schools, including pre–K children and gifted 3rd–6th graders, and served as a cheer sponsor and a principal. Most recently, Shipley served as director of preschool programs at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Shipley presents at early childhood conferences and helps teachers in their classroom. She has also started a teacher website to help teachers, parents, aspiring teacher candidates, and administrators at www.busyclassroom.weebly.com.

Comments (3)

Jane Gaskill

February 22, 2014

I am sad that so many children are missing out on play. I will do all I can to help. Tks ...Tisha.

Jan Magray

February 22, 2014

I enjoyed reading your succinct and accurate summation of the current situation in the American classroom.  I invite you to join with me in creating ways to bring play back into the classroom.  Please visit my website http://www.artsofthespirit.net and the related blog: adventuresinintegrativeeducation.blogspot.com (there is a link) and support me as I blog the book that explain why integrative education based on artistic expression and physical activity is essential for meaningful learning.  Thank you for your wonderful article.
Jan Magray, author, educator, musician, minister, parent, and grandparent.

Sherry Leach

March 28, 2015

I never really realized how important play was in a child’s life until I started working at the Head Start Center as a teacher, and that is how we had to do our lesson plans each week is watch how children interact through play, and I have learn a great deal of what all you can learn through play. The children learn just as much as drilling them each day. I thought well, how in the world is the children going to learn anything just by observing them playing all day, well I got my answer as we turned over to no longer teaching them their ABCs sitting in a circle and making them do it, and trust me it was an enjoying experience for me and I really enjoyed it. Sherry

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