A Response to the NY Times Opinion Piece on Play

A Response to the NY Times Opinion Piece on Play

By on May 19, 2015

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times discussed the move towards replacing play in early childhood educational settings with didactic instruction. The author, David Kohn, a Baltimore science writer, provides research evidence showing this move is not only developmentally inappropriate, it doesn't even lead to increased academic achievement. He hopes that policy makers will take note of the science.

While Kohn has a point, reading the article brought to mind three issues: 1) I don't know how Kohn defines "play," 2) Kohn is reinforcing the discontinuity between early childhood and the rest of education, and 3) he's missing the much bigger picture: didactic instruction no longer serves any student at any age.

What is play?

Play is a construct that is likely to mean different things to different people. For parents, play may bring to mind children frolicking through fields, hanging from trees, playing in mud, and generally just doing whatever one wants. But for researchers who must actually define their constructs to clarify what they’re actually studying, play is more complex than that.

Within the research literature, there is the overall construct of playful learning, which is broken down into free play and guided play.1 Free play involves pretending, playing with objects and/or peers, and rough-and-tumble play. There is very little adult control and no extrinsic rewards. Guided play, on the other hand, falls on a continuum and involves adult guidance that promotes academic knowledge through activities that feel like fun rather than the I-want-to-poke-my-own-eyes-out-because-I-have-to-sit-still-and-listen-to-the-adult didactic instruction. The continuum is based on the amount of guidance a teacher provides: some teachers may only provide specific materials in the environment, while other teachers may provide materials and still lead all playful activities. But there is that wonderful middle ground, as Fisher, et al. (2011)1 state:

Teachers play a unique role in guided play experiences. They can sensitively guide learning, creating flexible, interest-driven experiences that encourage children’s autonomy/control over the process (p. 343).

Two meta-analyses conducted in 2011 examining 164 studies of discovery learning approaches to education showed that unassisted discovery, as it occurs in free play or in guided play wherein the teacher provides no actual guidance in the learning process, doesn’t benefit students. However, guided discovery involving feedback (which can come directly from the materials or other students and not necessarily the teacher) and/or teacher scaffolding did benefit students.2

As someone who once ran a fully-implemented Montessori school where children engage in “work,” I think understanding the constructs of play and the research that has examined them is incredibly important. Otherwise, people are likely to assume that Montessori schools are modern day child labor camps instead of the joyful learning communities that they actually are. And for some parents, no matter how much you explain the construct of "work" in Montessori, they are not swayed thanks to some article extolling the virtues of play without even defining it. Ahem.

Frolicking in mud and hanging from trees may seem like the idyllic early childhood setting, but that’s only because we adults tend to perceive “work” as something we have to do in order to have fun on the weekends. Montessori children, however, don’t. They perceive “work” in their classrooms as play because they’re doing something that feels good.To them, work isn't drudgery. It's flow.

And it turns out that an examination of playful learning and Montessori education found that the two constructs had much in common: an overarching structure, free choice, peer interaction, materials specific to the developmental stage, a lack of extrinsic rewards, and just plain fun.4 But all of that can be difficult to get across to parents when the media advocates for play without even defining it. Ahem, again.

Attention media: please define stuff.

Education’s Discontinuity

I have always thought it strange that conventional education assumes that preschool children should have freedom to play but primary or even high school students should not. It seems that once a child starts first grade, it’s time to forget that play nonsense and get to work – as in the I-want-to-poke-my-own-eyes-out-because-I-have-to-sit-still-and-listen-to-the-adult type of work.

What is that all about?

And how does spending your early childhood days mud wrestling with your buddies and finger painting prepare you for the compliance-demanding environment of primary school? Why is there so little continuity between the culture of early childhood and primary education? Not to mention the discontinuity between the curriculums. How exactly does one go from painting with one’s finger at age five to writing paragraphs with topic sentences and citing sources at age 6?

Oh! Right. We make the children sit through didactic instruction at an even earlier age.

Yes, we could do that. Or we could scrap the entire K-12 framework and start over with one that's, you know, based on human development.

Kohn is so very right to suggest that engaging children in didactic instruction at an earlier age is not the answer. But only recommending play for preschool and not questioning the didactic instruction for all the other grade levels only reinforces the discontinuity. And it’s the discontinuity itself that is showing us how the framework isn't actually based upon how children learn or develop, so maybe we should question the whole thing.

But wouldn’t it be great if there was an educational framework that was based upon how children actually learn and develop starting from BIRTH? It wouldn’t be great. It is great. It’s Montessori.

Didactic Instruction Is So 20th Century

The 20th century ended with a technological boom that completely changed our society and economy. We went from a hierarchical society and an industrial economy to a society of distributed networks and a knowledge economy.5 Digital networking technologies enabled this social reorganization, allowing us to transcend the boundaries of vertical organizations and become a truly global society. This means that content is everywhere, is easily shared, and is changing faster than ever. That’s why education needs to move out of the industrial and hierarchical framework that focuses on content knowledge mastery. That ship has sailed.

Instead, education needs to focus on the critical interpretation, synthesis, and application of real-world information, collaboration with others, and creative thought6 (which is exactly what Montessori education does7). This means letting go of the tired didactic instructional method, which is designed to pour content into children’s heads, because it’s neither useful nor engaging – not even for adults. And, sure, you can try to deliver content through fancy digital devices but, again, content delivery should no longer be the focus of education because content changes faster than ever now. I'm not suggesting school should be devoid of content. I'm suggesting that children need to know how to critically examine it and think about how to change it.

In his opinion piece, Kohn raised the point about 21st century learning, but he only did so in reference to early childhood (though he did make mention of children up to age 8):

As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education [referring to didactic instruction] will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors.

Yes! But why stop at early childhood education? Why is didactic instruction okay for children above age 8?

Sadly, it seems that Kohn, like so many others, including the researchers he quoted, is still stuck inside the industrial educational framework box. But just because school has looked a certain way for over 100 years doesn’t mean that’s the way it SHOULD be – especially when it was designed by so-last-century industrialists who knew nothing nor even cared to know about how children develop and learn.8

So while it's great that Kohn is taking a stand for young children, I think we need to take a stand for all children. And that means questioning the meaning of constructs (especially ones like "child-centered learning" -- but that's a whole other post), not ignoring strange discontinuities within the education system, and questioning the antiquated industrial framework that still informs the thinking of education researchers and policy makers but no longer serves our children at any age.


1.  Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D. G., & Berk, L. (2011). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy. The Oxford handbook of the development of play, 341-362.

2.  Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., Aldrich, N. J., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1-18. doi: 10.1037/a002101710.1037/a0021017.supp (Supplemental)

3.  Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815.

4.  Lillard, A. S. (2013). Playful learning and Montessori education. American Journal of Play, 5(2), 157-186.

5.  Center for Transatlantic Relations. (2005). The network society: From knowledge to policy. In M. Castells & G. Cardoso (Eds.), The network society: From knowledge to policy (pp. 3-21). Washington, DC: Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

6.  Collis, B. (2005). E-learning and the transformation of education for a knowledge economy. In M. Castells & G. Cardoso (Eds.), The network society: From knowledge to policy (pp. 215-223). Washington, DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; The World Bank Group. (2003). Lifelong learning in the global knowledge economy. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTLL/Resources/Lifelong-Learning-in-the-Global-Knowledge-Economy/lifelonglearning_GKE.pdf

7.  Flores, M. A. (2015). Education for the 21st century economy. The Montessori White Papers, 1, 1-6.

8.  Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


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