The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues
A few years ago, I interviewed a highly respected director of a progressive preschool. She had been teaching preschoolers for about 40 years and had seen major changes in the social and physical development of children in the past few generations.
“Kids are just different,” she started to say. When I asked her to clarify, she said, “They are more easily frustrated – often crying at the drop of a hat.” She had also observed that children were frequently falling out of their seats “at least three times a day,” less attentive, and running into each other and even the walls. “It is so strange. You never saw these issues in the past.”
She went on to complain that even though her school was considered highly progressive, they were still feeling the pressure to limit free play more than she would like in order to meet the growing demands for academic readiness that was expected before children entered kindergarten.
Research continues to point out that young children learn best through meaningful play experiences, yet many preschools are transitioning from play-based learning to becoming more academic in nature. A preschool teacher recently wrote to me: “I have preschoolers and even I feel pressure to push them at this young age. On top of that, teachers have so much pressure to document and justify what they do and why they do it, the relaxed playful environment is compromised. We continue to do the best we can for the kid’s sake, while trying to fit into the ever-growing restraints we must work within.”
As parents and teachers strive to provide increasingly organized learning experiences for children (as I had once done), the opportunities for free play – especially outdoors is becoming less of a priority. Ironically, it is through active free play outdoors where children start to build many of the foundational life skills they need in order to be successful for years to come.
In fact, it is before the age of 7 years — ages traditionally known as “pre-academic” — when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.