Friday, February 10, 2012

Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld: Let the Kids Play!

There is a trend in our society that is quite troubling. Children are forced into formal education at younger and younger ages. Well meaning adults often think it will make them smarter, help them succeed, give them a head start. [cue buzzer] Wrong! Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld is stepping on 'overachieving moms' toes. He isn't the first either. 

"Life must be lived as play." -Plato

"Almost all creativity involves purposeful play." -Abraham Maslow
"Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play." -Henry Matisse

"Play is the highest form of research." -Albert Einstein

Turns out [gasp!] children who play more are smarter. Why? Because play helps children build problem solving networks. Even at six years old children are not ready to learn by working because the prefrontal cortex is still under construction. Preschoolers have to be secure in the love and attention of their families at this critical age. When that is absent, they will turn to peers for attachment. This will make sense to those who practice attachment parenting [wink!]. Gordon says "It takes six years of ideal conditions where a child gives his heart to his parents." Let's point out that students in Finland do not start formal education until the age of seven. Consequently the country boasts among the highest-ranking performers in international comparisons. 

On a personal note, I'm convinced that play is exactly what shaped my choice of occupation as an Interior Designer. I didn't start school until I was 7. I didn't even go to kindergarten (aside from those few weeks, mom). Was I behind my classmates? Not at all, in fact I was one of the 'smartest' in my class. I still remember vividly those first three years of school in Russia with little to no homework and a ton of time spent playing with my friends. Guess what was my favorite thing to do? Build homes for my dolls. Little did I know that fourteen years later I would be building scale models of people's homes at RBA. This isn't the only play scenario that shaped my interests as an adult. I could go on about drawing and painting, photography, and music. It's what I was born with and thankfully my parents didn't force learning on me and let me develop these passions. Not all children are so blessed. 

As I watch my children playing - I smile. I just need to join in, not look for a curriculum. 

What do you think? Do you still believe children benefit from early education? Or do you think that play is the best form of learning? What has been your childhood experience?

Photo: Baby E playing at the Boston Children's Museum 


  1. I agree with your post. Kids need free time to explore and discover!

  2. I also agree! I think the trend of cutting down on recess is cutting down on education too.

  3. Never looked at it this way, but i agree that kids learn while playing =)

  4. I agree that play is the best way to learn. As a high school English teacher suffering through Romeo and Juliet with my freshmen, I can speak from experience. :)

  5. I have been working with my 2 yr old to make sure that she plays independantly. Lately she has been all 'I help' which translates to 'I can do it myself'. It has been amazing to see her growth as she learns to do things herself without me leading her through playing.

  6. I TOTALLY agree - this was refreshing to read! We plan to homeschool our daughter for at least the early years so that she can get as much play and unstructured learning as possible! She is 22 months now and is learning letters and numbers just because she plays with blocks and reads books, and because she asks us - it's certainly no scheduled curriculum we've done! She's going to be in school for SO much time in her life and I'm in no hurry to get her started. I also hate homework. I think they are in school long enough and the really good teachers are the ones who are able to teach them everything they need to learn in the hour class that they already have. In high school, I can see some reading, math problems, or other projects outside of class are understandable, but should be minimal and rare.

  7. I think many kids are over scheduled. I like to have down time and let them decide what to do too. I couldn't afford early education but my children have done well, and some exceptionally.

  8. This is why I love Montessori preschool and preschoolers in general. They remind us that play is learning and life is fun.

  9. I LOVE this post! We are homeschooling our five year old daughter mostly due to health reasons (heart/immune issues) and her ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder. Miss C is extrememly smart and loves to be challenged. So, we love to work on reading/math (not pushing) and combine it with her interests. We let her play and be creative - letting her use her tools, sensory boxes, and creative boxes we've created to bridge her learning and her play to keep her challenged, but having fun.

    1. Your daughter is a lucky girl! Many kids with same issues, diagnosed or not, get swept under the rug in public school and never truly excel - not because they aren't smart, but because the system isn't set up to work for them!

  10. I totally agree! Playtime is so important- It teaches creativity and other important life skills. I let my child be :)


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