shut up frog

Play has been removed from schools by non-educators

Brock Dubbels, Ph.D.

Dept. Psychology, Neuroscience, & Behaviour

McMaster University

It was not psychologists, educators, or child development researchers that removed play from schools. According to McCombs & Miller (2007), the emphasis on performance testing and standardization was led by a campaign of politicians and corporate interests to influence what happened in the classroom. With government reports such as Nation At Risk (1983), the National Governors Association (1989) worked to create Goals 2000 (1994) and called for greater levels of accountability for student achievement and rigorous academic standards. They called for more focus on standardized content, standardized content delivery, and standardized tests. This campaign to standardize schools worked to change classroom curriculum, but it contradicted and ignored 100 years of psychological research about human learning (McCombs & Miller, 2007).

The new standards and assessments became mandated performance indicators on how schools were evaluated. For a school to be rated as competent, their students had to meet federal and state performance guidelines, and school funding was tied to student performance on standardized assessments. This situation became so desperate for some schools, that entire school districts (superintendents, principals, and teachers) committed fraud by falsifying assessment data (Dayen, 2015).

Political reasons for standardization over play

Elected officials and journalists reported that American students had fallen behind other industrialized nations in math and science, and the proof was in American student performance on international testing tests called PISA and TIMMS. They warned that without improvements in student performance in math and science, the USA would no longer be competitive on the world stage (US Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, Science, & (US), 2007).

Reports such as these were political in nature. When American student scores are compared to students of the same income level, students in the United States did significantly better than all other countries:

For every administration of PISA and TIMSS, when controlling for

poverty, U.S. public school students are not only competitive, they

downright lead the world. Even at home nationally, when controlling

for poverty, public school students compete with private school

students in Lutheran, Catholic, and Christian schools when analyzing

NAEP data (Ravitch, 2013).

Poverty plays a central role in student performance. Schools serving lower-income students tend to be organized and operated differently than those serving more affluent students. Poverty is the most significant impact on academic performance. It does not matter if these schools are big or small, private, or religious. Poverty is the most significant predictor of poor academic performance (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2000; Rumberger & Palardy, 2005). Students in poverty often come to school without the social and economic benefits held by many middle-to-high SES students, such as access to books, food, parental support with schoolwork, and financial stability (Sirin, 2005).

In wealthy schools, students are more likely experience playful activities and learner centered pedagogy (Anyon, 1980). Schools that serve children in poverty, not only struggle the most, but are also often the first to get the standardized education, reduction in play, and elimination of electives such as music, arts, and training. We may be compounding the problem, rather than offering a solution by removing these things from children in poverty.

Children in poverty also experience greater exposure to threat and violence, which contributes to play deprivation. Play deprivation has arisen as a medical diagnosis. It means that children do not experience the essential cognitive, social, and affective benefits of learning through play (Milteer, Ginsburg, Health, & Mulligan, 2012). Play is an essential element of learning and development. Removing play in favor of standardization is a mistake.

Standardization is profit-centered, not student-centered

If anything was learned from the standardization campaign, it was that the creation of standards and content has proven to be very financially lucrative to testing companies, and very destructive for school districts (Dayen, 2015). These policies have led to change of control, where classrooms are now legislated through national education standards, and this legislation is often influenced, if not written by, lobbyists that work for the companies that profit from selling tests and curriculum, rather than the people who have experience working with children and child development research (Leistyna, 2007).

The shift to standardized assessment and curriculum has also led to instability. It is very profitable to have standards change. When standards change, schools are required to meet those new standards, and this is often accomplished by paying for new tests and new curriculum. State-based initiatives on Common Core—the standards and assessments—change every 4 years (Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2011). Each shift in standards constitutes a form of educational whack-a-mole, where districts are forced to purchase new curriculum, and states must create new assessments. This is a lucrative market, over $2 billion annually (Strauss, 2015).

To cultivate financial opportunity, educational publishers have been very involved in this process; Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying in states and on Capitol Hill from 2009 to 2014 (ibid). In many ways, standardization and accountability initiatives have exacerbated the “problems” they set out to solve, and instead, created a lucrative market for pre-packaged curriculum and tests, the deprofessionalization of teachers, and significant cost to American taxpayers.

Standardized methods of assessment often lack the long view, and do not pass the tests of time, retention, and adaptation. According to Atkinson & Mayo, (2010) focus on subject matter and facts only serve to limit student motivation, learning and choice, and reduce the potential for innovation. Additionally, high stakes tests, and the practice of evaluation during instruction is an unreliable index of whether the long-term changes, which constitute learning, have actually taken place (for review, read Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015).

Parents opt-out of standardization

Interestingly, many parents and stakeholders have begun to embrace the long view, and begun to doubt the value of testing; they have begun to “opt-out”, which is now called the “opt-out parents movement” (Layton, 2013). The opt-out movement indicates a trend towards more play-based and learner-centered practices, advocated for by the American Psychological Association (APA) (Alexander & Murphy, 1998; Barbara, 2004; Cornelius-White, 2007; McCombs, 2001; McCombs & Miller, 2007; Weimer, 2013).

The benefits of play

kids play as doctorPlay is not only an imaginative activity of amusement. Play and games serve important roles in cognitive, social, and affective development (Dubbels, 2014; Fisher, 1992; Frost, 1998; Garvey, 1990). In pre-industrial times, pastoral and foraging societies, children did not learn sequestered away from adult contexts (Thomas, 1964). Instead, children participated in playful variations of adult activities, where they could observe adults at work, and were able to imitate and emulate these activities through play without the danger of failure and consequence (Bock, 2005; Rogoff, 1994).

Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg provided a thorough psychological overview of the early role of play in their chapter in volume four of the Manual of Child Psychology (1983). They observed that humans play longer relative to other mammals that play. Lancaster and Lancaster (1987) built upon this position and state that this extended period of play is essential for development. Bjorklund, (2006) expands upon this view, and states that humans play longer because they are adaptive organisms, and, that extended play is essential, allowing humans the skills and knowledge to become independent in complex environments.

When children engage in complex peer play, they exhibit greater gains in levels of symbolic functional and oral language production, as compared to if they are interacting with an adult (Pellegrini, 1983). Additionally, when a learner experiences learning through play, where they can experience and role-play adult work, they report the activities are more meaningful, and that the activity did not feel like learning (Dubbels, 2010). This aligns with Winkielman & Cacioppo, (2001), who found that when learning new information is experienced as easy, processing is experienced as pleasant and effective.

Learning generated in the context of play, especially social play, can lead to greater engagement, improved recall, comprehension, and be more innovative. Juveniles can observe behaviors and strategies performed by adults but then recombine elements of these behaviors in novel routines in play (Bateson, 2005; Bruner, 1972; Fagen, 1981; Sutton-Smith, 1966). For example, the levels of children’s symbolic functional and oral language production are more varied and complex in peer play, relative to when they are interacting with an adult (Pellegrini, 1983). More importantly, play is a low-cost and low-risk way to learn new behaviors and acquire new skills and knowledge (ibid). Conversely, one could suggest that a limitation of direction instruction, observation, and imitating adults is that this kind of instruction will only transmit existing practices.

Offering activities to children in a playful mood can increase a willingness to take direction, and on-task behavior (Moore, Underwood, & Rosenhan, 1973; Rosenhan, Underwood, & Moore, 1974; Underwood, Froming, & Moore, 1977). To create a more playful mood, participants engage in playful communication, with emphasis on reducing or eliminating all commands, questions, and criticisms.

Play acts as an important organizing principle during developmental growth (Brown, 1998). Play is not only an imaginative activity; play also allows children to imitate and emulate adult work activities without the danger of failure. Children role-play activities from the adult world, and learn to use the tools, rules, and language of adult work. Play is an important part of academic learning. When children play, they develop new strategies and behaviors with minimal costs (Bateson, 2005; Burghardt, 2005; Spinka, Newbury, and Bekoff, 2001).

joyUsing a playful approach in the classroom represents a fundamental change in assessment, offering a philosophy of playful and data-informed assessment, as compared to standardized, data-driven assessment. To be data-informed, assessments are used to guide the way, not to indicate that learning is accomplished. In play-based assessment, one can inform and improve student learning, increase motivation and engagement, and improve our school’s programs by learning from our challenges, progress, and performance.


A playful structuring of assessment allows one to integrate play, and utilize assessment as a form of instructional communication, reducing threat, and emphasizing play. The value of such an approach is that it provides support for a range of students, including specialized support to educationally disadvantaged populations, including economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students who are at risk of not meeting state academic standards.


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