Director’s Column: Play-Based Learning Leads to School Readiness

By Jennifer Winters, Director

On a recent tour of Bing with a group of prospective parents, I overheard one parent say, “Yes, it is a beautiful school, but the children are really just playing and not learning anything.” I took a deep breath and vowed to address this misconception to the wider Bing community! Here I will attempt to explain how for young children learning and play are deeply entwined. Like yin and yang, play and learning are not only complementary, they are additive—their sum is always greater than their parts.

Play is how young children learn. It is an innate, biological, universal and evolutionary imperative. Yet, for the past four decades, the freedom and opportunity for play have steadily declined to a point that requires our attention and our immediate action. The window of opportunity to positively impact a young child’s development is very brief, and we have an obligation to make the most of it.

A growing body of research in neuroscience reveals that a child’s brain develops rapidly, and that play is crucial to that development. The brain reaches 80% of its size by age 3, is almost fully developed by age 5, and by age 7 all of the synapses in the brain will be formed. Synapses are the connections between neurons, or brain cells, that will enable their future learning. And, at a Bing Parent Seminar, Stanford neurosurgeon Jamshid Ghajar and Stanford physician Angela Lumba-Brown shared that recent evidence from neuroscience has shown that real-world, 3-D play by young children is what best creates those synapses in their brains.

Although early childhood educators and parents certainly want the best for young children, teaching in a didactic fashion has been documented to have disastrous effects, while studies have shown that play-based education that combines hands-on learning with child-initiated play has been extremely effective, stated Joan Almon, co-founder of the Alliance for Childhood, and Edward Miller, a founding partner of the U.S. Alliance for Childhood, in their white paper “The Crisis in Early Education, A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure.” According to leading education scholar Lilian Katz, building knowledge and skills is of little use if children do not have the disposition to use them. It is therefore essential not only to foster knowledge and skills, but also to develop children’s confidence and propensity to use and build on their knowledge and skills.

With good intentions and bad assumptions, play has slowly and steadily been taken away from young children. In his TEDx Talk, Peter Gray, psychologist from Boston College, eloquently explains this decline in play over the past 50 years. This decline in play is a result of many factors, and I will point out two major ones.

One contributor to the loss of play is the well-meaning, nationally mandated educational initiative (e.g., No Child Left Behind, 2002; Common Core, 2010) that comes with strict standards, testing and accountability. An unintended consequence of these programs has been the “push-down” effect, where kindergarten teachers and early childhood educators are pressured to prepare children early for future tests, using curricula that are too advanced for the children’s developmental stage.

Another contributor to the decline in play for young children has been technology. In an effort to help young children learn in our world of rapidly advancing technology—where newer is nearly always seen as better—the latest technologies, widely accessible and often marketed as “smart,” have been seen as an easy answer, even in the absence of supporting evidence. These include flashcards, videos, edutainment devices and programs, and now tablets and smartphones.

In both the implementation of mandatory testing programs and the early adoption of unproven new technologies, play has been viewed as frivolous and something done at the expense of learning. This assumption could not have been more wrong, and the loss of opportunity for young children to play is something we must correct.

A young child can watch a video about building with blocks, or move blocks around a screen with a finger for hours, but these activities will never teach a young child how to actually build with real blocks. Children who experience firsthand building with unit blocks are introduced to subjects like geometry (points, lines, planes and figures), number sense (use and recognition of numbers, one-to-one correspondence, part/whole relationships) and algebra (ordering and classifying while playing with blocks, solving for x by filling a space with a block). Then there is all of the scientific thinking that playing with blocks supports—understanding physical laws such as gravity, balance, depth and width, and practicing of trial and error, critical reasoning and making hypotheses. 

Benefits of Play in Terms of Kindergarten Readiness

Major theorists and decades of child development research support the benefits of play. As renowned psychologist Jean Piaget explained, children are by nature curious and will reach out to people and the environment because they are intrinsically motivated to learn and interact in the world around them. The quality of play affects children’s development and eventually their readiness for school. “Play can facilitate a child’s development from lower to higher functions and from understanding simple concepts to performing advanced mental activities.”

There are four crucial areas of development:

Cognitive development: Play helps children develop the ability to engage in symbolic and abstract thought—for example, children will push a table and chairs together and instantly turn them into a firetruck. A block might be an airplane or a car. Young children learn abstract thought through play. As scholars Kathleen Glascott Burris and Ling-Ling Tsao stressed, “Children need firsthand experience to construct knowledge, develop abstract thinking and generalize their knowledge to new situations.” An important element of cognition is executive function: a set of cognitive processes governed by the brain’s prefrontal cortex, including impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, using working memory, self-monitoring, planning, predicting, prioritizing, task initiation, persisting through challenges, paying attention, organizing and managing one’s thoughts, actions and emotions to get things done. Practicing executive function is a core benefit of play, especially pretend play. Examples of cognitive development skills include:

Early math skills: Children build their number sense through the countless play-driven activities that take place every day in the classroom. When a child uses the hole punch and colored construction paper at the design table to create a handful of shapes, he builds his one-to-one correspondence as he touches and counts aloud each of the shapes. Perhaps he then orders them into groups or sets based on color, another part of number sense. Across the room, another child is finding just the right unit block to finish her road. Thinking and playing spatially is the hands-on version of geometry. Blocks are multiples and fractions of the basic unit. Bing teachers engage in “math talk” whenever possible, using math language such as up, down, more, less, under, over, set/group and even add or subtract.

Language development: Research has shown that through rich pretend play using open-ended materials, children use more complex and more frequent oral language and increase their ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. In pretend play, children tend to speak longer and use more words. The reason for this may be that children are imitating adult-like roles and adult-like speech, which translates to more details in their oral language. Also, play is a springboard for early literacy. By providing writing tools and appropriate books in the classroom or home environment, we allow children to naturally engage with them in meaningful ways.

Creativity: Play fosters creativity and flexibility in thinking. There is no right or wrong way to do things, and the possibilities are limitless. Play allows children to use their creativity while they develop their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional selves. Children who have spent extended periods of role playing (dramatic play) are associated with higher measures of creativity and creative problem-solving, according to scholar Olivia Saracho. Not only does rich dramatic play lead to higher creativity, it also leads to greater language development, which supports early reading success—skills that are needed for kindergarten readiness.

Social development: When the theme of the play is the children’s idea, they learn to negotiate and cooperate: They learn how to work in groups, how to make decisions, resolve conflicts and be advocates for themselves. Pretend play is especially conducive for social development. A key attribute of pretend play is that children must make inferences about their playmate’s mental state. For instance, when one child has a playmate who announces that a stick is a wand, that child has to deduce that the playmate is pretending and that the true identity of the stick is different from the pretend identity. With this growing understanding comes a greater ability to take another’s perspective—and with that comes the development of social skills, according to Piaget.

Emotional development: Play is an excellent means to support emotional development. Anxiety, frustration, trauma, and dealing with conflict and impulses are just some of the emotional issues that can arise during play. Play is the ideal place to learn how to manage these feelings. During play, children can learn to articulate their feelings and thoughts, saying, for instance, “It hurt my feelings when Diego wouldn’t let me play in the house with the other children.” Working through these feelings and emotions in play scenarios allows children to practice developing strategies for the next time—and will build crucial skills for a lifetime. This is referred to as self-regulation. “The key to developing self-regulation is play, lots and lots of dramatic and pretend play—complex, make-believe play lasting for hours, even days,” wrote Deborah Leong in Tools of the Mind. Children can control their impulses much better in play than in non-play. They are eager for the play to continue, so going with the flow of the game and the implied rules of the game is essential. Children will remind their peers if the play is getting off track and will prompt them back into character. For instance, if the baby in the family is running around, her playmates will remind her that the baby doesn’t know how to run yet.

Physical development and health: Unlike passive entertainment or a didactic approach to learning, active play builds healthy bodies. In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics asserts that active play may be a solution to our country’s obesity crisis. It is obvious that outdoor play contributes to children’s physical development, in particular their motor development. Less obvious is the learning that happens when children test their own physicality and endurance: Can I swing all the way across the monkey bars? Can I pump my legs to make the swing go higher and faster? Why do I feel out of breath when I run all the way to the gate?

Of all of the many aspects of child development that are strengthened by play, two competencies stand out: self-regulation and executive function. According to a guide to executive function and self-regulation published online by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, these two are the keys to short-term and long-term success in school, and life in general: having the mental capacities of executive function and self-regulation are like having a highly effective air traffic control system to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. Children’s brains have to hold on to their working memory and focus their thinking, filter distractions and switch gears. Children are not born with these skills, they have to learn them, and they are best learned through play—in particular, pretend play. Many developmental psychologists are now looking at self-regulation skills as a better predictor of success in school than IQ, but the important takeaway is that both of these skills are strengthened again through rich pretend play—repeat often! Other brain components of executive function are working memory—the ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over a short period of time (e.g., the ability to recall the steps of a recipe)—and mental flexibility—the ability to shift attention based on different circumstances. As children learn to control emotions and impulses so that the play can continue, they strengthen their self-control.

How Do We Define Play?

It seems that there are as many definitions for play as there are experts in the field. However, most theorists agree that the key attributes of play are:

  • Intrinsically motivated
  • Controlled by the players
  • Concerned with process rather than product
  • Nonliteral
  • Free of externally imposed rules
  • Characterized by the active engagement of the players

If parents and teachers want young children to be best prepared for formal education, they must let them play for as long as they can. Play enables a child to not only develop cognitively, but socially, emotionally and physically—and that is what readiness is all about. Readiness is not about memorizing facts, colors, shapes, numbers and letters. Readiness is not about having a teacher show flashcards about sharing, caring and listening. Children learn all those skills by doing, as they play hospital and take care of a pretend child or animal. For a young child, learning is active. Learning is self-directed play.

For the 53 years of Bing’s history, play has stood the test of time. Play is intrinsic in young children, and it’s their birthright, but our modern world has taken it away. We need to give it back to them, for their own good and for our future.

At Bing we remain committed to promoting healthy, imaginative play, because we know that is exactly what young children need to have a healthy, happy and successful start in life. 

Further Reading Material and Other Resources


A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Laura Berk and Dorothy Singer (2009).

Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, by Edward Miller and Joan Almon (Alliance for Childhood, 2009).

Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer (2003).

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown (2009).

Play = Learning, by Dorothy Singer, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (2006).

The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play, by Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds (2nd edition, 2011).

White paper

The Crisis in Early Education,  A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure,” by Joan Almon and Edward Miller (November 2011).

Journal articles

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children,” by Michael Yogman et al., (Pediatrics, September 2018).

Review of Research: How Much Do We Know About the Importance of Play in Child Development?” by Kathleen Glascott Burriss & Ling-Ling Tsao, (Childhood Education, 2002).



Play: Vital for Development,” Bing Nursery School Play Symposium

Peter Gray, TEDx Talk on play

Stuart Brown, TED Talk on play

Newspaper articles

Taking Playtime Seriously,” by Perri Klass

Let the Children Play (Some More),” by Stuart Brown