A recent article from Angela Hanscom, occupational therapist and founder of nature-based development program, TimberNook, draws connections between the decline of unorganized, self-directed free play for two, three and four year olds and troubling changes in these young children’s social and physical development.
In the article, The Decline of Play in Preschoolers – And the Rise in Sensory Issues, Hanscom explores the growing trend of preschools transitioning from play-based learning to becoming more academic in nature and the impact on those preschoolers.
“They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age,” says Hanscom.
Similarly, an article by Peter Gray, featured in the Journal of Play, states: “Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults.
The Gray article highlights the benefits of free-play – which uniquely and organically allows children to:
- develop intrinsic interests and competencies
- learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules
- learn to regulate their emotions
- make friends, take turns and get along with others
- experience joy
Hanscom argues that children under the age of seven “desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds.” She concludes “Children just need the time, the space, and the permission to be kids.”
At a time where increased time and weight are given to academics, parents are seeking alternatives to the results-driven, test-driven direction most preschools are headed. Waldorf schools take a different approach – centering the early childhood curriculum around experiential learning, developing skills and confidence via self-directed free play, practical life skills, and artistic opportunities.