BRONXVILLE, N.Y. (AP) -- Is recess going the way of the hula hoop?
Simple playtime is being nudged off the school schedule in favor of more and earlier academics and highly structured free time, and that's bad news, says Jan Drucker, director of the Child Development Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.
''If play is removed or prevented too early, there will be a toll on the deep cognitive processes, the underpinning of what everybody wants children to develop: the ability to think, the ability to use language productively, the ability to use symbol systems,'' she says.
But some schools and even entire school districts around the country have eliminated recess from their school day. ''Open-ended work periods and recess in schools are being undervalued and even eliminated,'' says Sara Wilford, director of the Early Childhood Center at the college. She cites research that shows children play less than they did 16 years ago.
Drucker says children left free to play make-believe develop the ability to think hypothetically, to imagine what's not there. ''Being able to imagine that which is not is the basis of abstract thinking. For example, the whole field of computers and cyberspace involves the imagining of what you cannot see.''
Drucker says the change from play to formal learning isn't and shouldn't be an abrupt switch for children. ''They continue to need to be inventive, to find ways of representing their growing knowledge of the world through many different activities like play, not just through formal learning tasks,'' she says.
Her colleague, Margery Franklin of the college's psychology faculty, notes disagreement among child development professionals about the issue. ''Some of those who defend the place of play in the preschool curriculum take the view that by the age of six, children should put aside such childish activities, at least in school, and turn to the serious business of learning to read, write, and manipulate numbers. On the other side, we find a growing group of educators and psychologists engaged in articulating and theorizing the significance of play beyond the preschool years.''
Market forces are fueling the demand for structured products such as computer games and high-tech toys, Drucker says. But overuse of these may limit creative thinking. ''It's a matter of not playing in one's own imagination, but rather in the imagination of the toy or computer game's designer.''
The Sarah Lawrence group emphasizes that pretend-play is self-initiated, self-directed, and self-fulfilled. Simple, inexpensive and readily found materials -- paint, clay, blocks, sand, water -- allow children to choose what to play and how to play. They are constructing their own learning, they say.
''Our point of view is that play is not only OK, but essential,'' says Drucker.
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