Synopsis: Many schools are cutting down on recess to focus on the 3R’s, but child development experts say play is part of children’s “work” and an important part of how they learn. One expert discusses.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Ann Gadzikowski, Early Childhood Coordinator, Center for Talent Development, Northwestern Univ. and author, Creating a Beautiful Mess: The Essential Experiences for a Joyful Childhood

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The Importance of Play

Nancy Benson: School is in full swing and classroom teachers are focusing on reading, writing, and arithmetic. But in a lot of schools, something equally important may be missing from the picture, namely…play. Many schools have slashed recess periods in half, or eliminated recess altogether. Even after school, kids are so busy these days they have no time to play.

Ann Gadzikowski: What do you remember about play when you were little? Because everyone I know played when they were a kid and probably have really happy memories about play from their own childhood and some of the most important things that happened to us are during play the connections we make to our family and our friends and the happy memories we have of those care-free times.

Benson: That’s Ann Gadzikowski, Early Childhood Coordinator For Northwestern University’s Center For Talent Development, and author of Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Experiences for a Joyful Childhood.

Gadzikowski:  As an educator I would say that I don’t think we have to choose between play or learning. I think that they’re both amazing, wonderful experiences that children have. The message of my book is that children really need balanced experiences with play. They need time to learn, they need time to play, they need time indoors, they need time outdoors. Parents ask me is it okay for children to use technology for play, and I say absolutely, but what else are they doing? So, they’re playing on their iPads, they’re playing on their iPhones, but are they also playing with blocks? Are they also running around outside? Are they playing board games with their siblings and with you? So, I think children need a balance between all kinds of experiences.

Benson: Gadzikowski sites the work of a pioneer in early childhood education, Maria Montessori, who said that a child’s work is to play.

Gadzikowski:  And there’s a lot of learning that happens during play and there’s a lot of play that happens during learning. I think a lot of media articles say play or learning, we have to choose between one or the other. It’s almost as if play is the fun thing and learning is the hard thing. But I think that learning can be really fun too, so I think we need both.

Benson: Gadzikowski looks at play from a child’s perspective. She’s observed 10 different major actions children perform during play. She describes them in her book.

Gadzikowski:  For example, the first one is building with blocks. The second chapter is about pretending. The third chapter is called “Running around like crazy,” and it’s about outdoor play. There’s a chapter about cuddling things that are soft and small like teddy bears and dolls. There’s a whole chapter on laughing and joking and general silliness, because I think children probably think of that as something really important that they hope will happen everyday. As parents we don’t think, “Oh well we have to set aside time for joking right now.”  Those things happen spontaneously we hope, but they’re really important. There are also some chapters in the book about play for slightly older school aged children who play turn taking games; they play board games, they like to collect things. That’s also where I talk about technology, because there is a place I think for playing video games or playing computer games as long as it’s in moderation.

Benson: But parents can’t just turn their kids loose on their own. Gadzikowski says parents need to play with their kids a little bit everyday, especially young children. With three- four- and five-year-olds, imaginative play is especially important. But who has time to play when you come home from a long day at work and need to get dinner on the table?

Gadzikowski: There’s a lot of pressure on parents to be all to everyone and that’s definitely a concern. Workdays are really long. Many of the parents I work with are single parents and they wonder when they’re going to have time with their children. I really encourage a common sense approach to the times you have with your children. If you have chores and work that you have to do, then keep your child close to you. Play a little and work a little. Play in the kitchen while your cooking, pretend that your making a magic stew together. Build with blocks on the living room floor. A little bit here and there goes a long way, but I think with the young children it is really important that the parents are with them and engage with them at least little bit each day.

Benson: As children get older, Gadzikowski says its common for relationships with friends to become more important to your kids than play time with you. But it’s still important to relax and have fun with your children, even your teenagers. Just sitting around the table playing a board game or with a deck of cards is time well-spent. But sooner or later, board games and make believe won’t be enough. Gadzikowski warns that your kids will inevitably engage in some risky behavior. But surprisingly, that’s another of the 10 categories of play children engage in. In fact, she says risky play is important.

Gadzikowski: I’ve noticed in the 25 plus years that I’ve been working in schools and working with children and families that playgrounds have gotten less interesting and less fun for kids. When I was a kid I remember that there was a playground near my house where there was this slide that was probably three stories tall and it had this twisty ladder and we loved climbing up so high we could see for miles from the top. And now playgrounds are made really low and safe and there’s all kinds of cushioning material underneath. Now, I definitely believe in the children’s well being. I don’t want children to get hurt and in the programs where I work my nickname is the safety queen because I’m really a stickler about keeping children safe. But children need physical activity that really challenges them. They need to climb and they need to run and they need to move around. They need to collect sticks and run around and throw rocks into puddles. I think sometimes we’re a little bit too quick to tell them to be careful or to tell them to slow down.

Benson: But these days many kids don’t have time to run around and play. After school activities and hours of homework every night take up every moment for a lot of kids.

Gadzikowski: Parents ask, “How can we fit in play time?” I think that children have too much homework, generally. The children I meet and the parents I talk to, there’s too much homework. I think that parents actually need to set limits on homework. When you’re at home with your child and you’ve been working hard all day and this is your only chance to connect with your child and they have two hours of homework? I would say, “You know what? Let’s play first; let’s play first together and have a little fun and then you can get to your homework. Or let’s limit homework to a certain amount time and then let’s play a little bit.” So, I think parents need to protect that free time for their kids. I really encourage parents to relax and enjoy playing with your children. It’s not a chore, it’s not another thing to put on your to-do list. These are the best times as a parent when you get to play with your child.

Benson: You can learn more about Ann Gadzikowski and her book creating a beautiful mess through her website,, or through a link on our web site Our writer this week is Polly Hansen. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra. I’m Nancy Benson.

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