Where have all the players gone?

Dr. Olga S. Jarrett
Georgia State University

Letter to TASP members

Think of how you played as a child and what you learned from your play experiences. When I was a child, I had rich play experiences. Like many children today, we did not live in a safe neighborhood. I did not have the freedom to roam the streets, but we used our tiny backyard to the max. At home with my brother or with my friends, we played detectives, designing our own “who-done-its,” played school and made up tests, and played supermarket, shopping for products from our pantry with pretend money. Other memorable experiences included dress-ups, making up complex senarios with dolls and dollhouses, being an explorer among the hollyhocks in our small backyard, making up puppet shows, playing board games, and designing a museum of natural history in a bedroom cabinet. When we got tired of having our baseball go over the fence, we sometimes got taken to a park to play. On vacation, we made sand castles at the beach and moss gardens and stick log cabins in the mountains. My half-day kindergarten did not teach me to read. Instead, we played at the sand table, learned singing games, and did art projects. In school we had recess twice a day and an hour to walk home for lunch. We had art and music every week; and we had time to play after school since we did not have homework until 4th grade. I see many connections between how I played as a child and my adult work and hobbies, and I strongly suspect that play and informal learning experiences affected my approaches to learning (creativity, problem solving ability, and persistence) more than my formal school experiences.

What is happening to play? Children in America seem to be having fewer and fewer opportunities for positive play experiences. I see four trends that are eating into children’s opportunities for play and fun in general:

Abolition of recess. Many of the schools in at least 10 states have abolished recess, causing children to spend many six hour days without exercise or down time. Even kindergarten is affected. A recent survey of Georgia schools suggests that 25% of the kindergarten children do not get daily recess. They are indoors all day. Children without recess miss an opportunity to chase each other, make up their own games, decide what is fair and who is “it” and hone their physical skills and imagination on playground equipment. The pressure to increase test scores has caused many school systems to opt for “uninterrupted instructional time.” Nationwide (Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Linver, & Hofferth, 2002) and in my home state of Georgia (Jarrett, 2003 ), the children most likely to be deprived of recess are African American or Hispanic children living below the poverty line. Since children who usually have recess consider it punishment when recess is withdrawn, one could consider that whole segments of the population are being punished daily. What are the outcomes of a no recess policy? Dale, Corbin and Dale (2000) found that children who are inactive at school are even more in active after school. My own research suggests there might be more classroom management problems (Jarrett, Maxwell, Dickerson, Hoge, Davies, Yetley (1998). What about increases in obesity, lack of concentration, problems with learning social skills, lack of creativity, and increases in inappropriate play in the classroom?

Academic pressure at younger and younger ages. Over the past 10 years, I have seen significant changes in Kindergarten and pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) curricula. Kindergarten is more like first grade was 10 years ago, and pre-K (4 year-olds) is looking more like Kindergarten was in 1994. Kindergarten once was a “children’s garden” where five-year-olds played in block areas, housekeeping centers, with puzzles and games, and with sand and water. There was circle time with books and story telling, music and movement, and outdoor play. As I have supervised student teachers in kindergarten classes over the past ten years, I have seen major changes. The block and housekeeping areas have been removed, and children receive formal reading instruction for most of the day. Children who can’t read at the end of kindergarten are considered behind. A pilot survey which my doctoral students conducted with veteran kindergarten teachers last summer showed that teachers are concerned that today’s five year olds seem less creative and less able to entertain themselves than five-year-olds were a decade ago.

What about pre-K programs? Early academics is becoming a growing focus of these programs as well. New trends include testing in Head Start and the abolition of naps in pre-K to allow for more academic time (Carr, 2004). According to policy makers, focus on academics in pre-K is needed to prepare children for kindergarten, where a focus on academics is needed to prepare children for first grade. But what happens where children are allowed to play during the early years? In Finland, children learn through play until they enter formal schooling at age seven (Ojanen, n.d.). They start out a bit behind, but they soon catch up. In international research designed to compare test results from different countries (Program for international Student Assessment), Finland is the highest scoring country in literacy and near the top in mathematics and science. Finnish teenagers score high on engagement and interest in reading. They read because they enjoy it (Valijarvi, Linnakyla, Kupari, Reinikainen, Arffman, 2000). In contrast, a second-grader I know who learned to read early and was rewarded for reading many books as part of the Accelerated Reader program, refused to read at all during the summer. Reading for him was work rather than fun. Does academic pressure at younger and younger ages deprive children of prerequisite play skills that help build understandings and positive approaches to learning?

More structured and/or more passive leisure time. Children whose parents have the time and money to involve them in lessons, organizations, and sports often lead very structured lives, as they spend after school hours, Saturdays, and summers in one program after another. They don’t have much time for free play. On the other hand, latchkey children generally don’t have much opportunity to play either. They are expected to stay at home and not have friends over to play. These children are more apt to spend their leisure time watching TV or using the computer alone than in playing school, playing board games, exploring outdoors in the fields and woods, or in playing outdoor games. Are over-structured children suffering from stress? Are “couch potatoes” more likely to be obese? Do they expect to be entertained? Do children with little outdoor experience care less about the environment? Eminent scientists have reflected on their early freedom to investigate as important preparation for scientific careers. Where do budding scientists learn how to investigate if school and after-school experiences do not allow it?

Funding cutbacks and No Child Left Behind. The pressure of standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation has taken a lot of the fun out of teaching and learning. Many schools are teaching only what will be covered on the test. In some cases, this has meant cuts in physical education, art, music, science, and social studies. The subjects that are not tested are often not taught at all. And the subject that are tested tend to focus on topics and concepts that can be tested by multiple choice tests. The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) focus on science process skills, but scientific behavior is not readily tested with multiple choice tests. Will a generation of students be turned off science?

Many schools have scripted programs that give teachers no leeway to draw on the children’s interests or make learning fun. One teacher in my masters class has to teach five scripted programs each day, allowing him not more than 15 minutes a day to individualize the curriculum. Pep rallies for standardized tests have replaced pep rallies for sports. Interestingly, a school in Canada that devoted one third of the day to playful activities such as art, music, and physical activities, saw an improvement in attitude, fitness, and test scores in spite of less time spent on academics (Martens, 1982).

I am concerned about the pressure for more time on task and earlier academics. I wonder about the long term effects of less time for outdoor play and less time for activity based learning. An unfortunate experiment is going on that could show what happens when young children do not have the opportunity to play. Are we ready to study it?


Clark, S. (2004). Blocks, nap time giving way to language and reading programs: Preschools closing the gap. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online. Downloaded Nov. 2, 2004.

Dale, D., Corbin, C. B., & Dale, K. S. (2000). Restricting opportunities to be active during school time: Do children compensate by increasing physical activity levels after school? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 71(3), 240-248.

Jarrett, O. S., Maxwell, D. M., Dickerson, C., Hoge, P., Davies, G., Yetley, A. (1998). The impact of recess on classroom behavior: Group effects and individual differences. The Journal of Educational Research, 92 (2), 121-126.

Jarrett, O. S. (2003). Urban school recess: The haves and the have nots. Play, Policy, & Practice Connections, 8 (1), 1-3, 7-10.

Martens, F. L. (1982). Daily physical education—a boon to Canadian elementary schools. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 53(3), 55-58.

National Research Council (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Ojanen, H. (n.d.) Education and training in Finland. Downloaded Nov. 2, 2004.

Roth, J., Brooks-Gunn, J., Linver, M., & Hofferth, S. (2002). What happens during the school day? Time diaries from a ntational sample of elementary school teachers. Teachers College Record [Online]. Available: ID Number: 11018.

Valijarvi, J., Linnakyla, P., Kupari, P., Reinikainen, P., Arffman, I. (2000). The Finnish success in PISA – and some reasons behind it, Institute for Educational Research, P.O. box 35, FIN-40014, University of Jyvaskyla.