The playtime’s the thing A debate over the value of make-believe and other games in preschool classes is deepening as more states fund programs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009


On a recent Thursday, 5-year-old Estefani Lovo Rivera took charge of a make-believe hair salon in her preschool classroom at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington County. Wielding a plastic fork as a hairbrush, dispatching customer after customer with a certain cool efficiency, she looked around the room for more classmates to entice.

"You have to come today," the budding stylist said. "Tomorrow we’re closed!"

To the untrained eye, such play appears to be nothing more than a distraction from the real letters-and-numbers work of school. But research shows that it might be an essential part in determining these children’s social and emotional makeup as adults.

As Estefani and the children buzzing around her — one taking hair appointments over a telephone, another pretending to curl a client’s hair with an eggbeater — spun their scenario, they were developing the roots of empathy and the capacity to take turns, negotiate with peers and understand how their behavior affects people.

"Play is problem-solving," said Judy Apostolico-Buck, Arlington’s early childhood education coordinator. "It’s really critical life skills."

The debate among early childhood educators over whether precious school hours should be spent on play has simmered for years. But it is intensifying as preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, once the province of child-care centers, is increasingly embraced by public school systems to teach students the skills they need to be successful in kindergarten. That is especially true for poor and minority children and those who speak English as a second language.

"If we are to prevent the achievement gap and develop a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, early learning programs are going to have to be better integrated with the K-12 system," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday at a convention of the nation’s largest early childhood organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Locally and across the nation, time for play has been increasingly squeezed out of kindergarten and first grade as schools, bent on raising student achievement, especially among poor and minority students, have focused on literacy and math skills for children at ever-younger ages. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure that all children are proficient in math, reading and writing by 2014.