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Why Educational Play Works

“Play hard. Play often. Play smart,” advises Patricia Ryan, a San Diego Child Development Specialist.

Although Ryan admits her advice sounds like one of Vince Lombardi’s familiar quotations, she explains that it derives from a long-term study of children who devoted their daily after-school play time to “educational play,” including regular exercise and games with older siblings and parents. The study followed a cohort of elementary school children from first through fifth grades, requiring two hours of structured after school play five days per week. Between first and fifth grades, children who spent “quality time” exercising their brains and bodies consistently out-performed their classmates by every measure of academic achievement and emotional development. Ryan notes that researchers stressed the value of play with family members, and they similarly stressed the value of diverse activities on the play “menu.”

Participants in the study identified seven favorite:

Book Art

Especially as children grew into “chapter books,” they enjoyed illustrating the stories or developing story boards to show the biggest events in the plots. As they became more proficient writers, they also liked composing, printing, and binding their own books. Although researchers did not quantify their findings, teachers reported children who supplemented their regular reading with art activities had better comprehension and retention than their classmates, and they seemed to visualize stories more vividly.

Cook and Bake Together

Children often rated cooking and baking as their favorite among their “educational play” activities, frequently commenting, “It’s fun to get all messy and still make something good to eat.” Parents and teachers said measuring ingredients helped children understand fractions and units of measure, and a few upper grade teachers reported the cooks among their students did better work in science labs because they understood both processes and precision measurements.

Throw It or Kick It

Parents who played catch or kicked a soccer ball back-and-forth with their children said the play time almost always turned into “quality talk time.” The rhythmic nature of catch and kicking seems to relax children, and they seem to feel safe when they simply play with their parents instead of taking instruction. “I always will remember the open and honest discussions we had as the softball sailed between us,” one mother commented joyfully.


Children especially enjoyed growing plants from seeds, and several of them developed science projects from their “playtime” gardens. In several cases, parents and children planted and cared for huge fruit and vegetable gardens, the produce of which they used in their cooking. “I loved picking and eating my very own tomatoes!” one student exclaimed.


Mothers and fathers used count-and-build projects to reinforce students’ mastery of the multiplication tables. In one project, they pounded sets of 100 nails into boards, first by tens, then by fives, and then in other combinations. They similarly put nuts and bolts into metal plates and small dowels into flat boards. Students loved using tools, and they said they remembered difficult math facts by visualizing their projects.

Bird Houses and Feeders

Many students loved their math projects so much they wanted more woodworking experiences. Bird feeders and houses became special favorites when birds actually used them. “A mother robin raised three babies in the house I built!” one student exulted. Parents reported use of hand tools helped their children’s hand-eye coordination, ad teachers said work on carpentry projects seemed to help students with the rudiments of geometry.

Popular Board Games

Older siblings said they most enjoyed playing “Monopoly” and “Scrabble” with their younger brothers and sisters. They modified the rules of “Scrabble” to make it easier for younger children, but siblings frequently reported their brothers and sisters beat them “fair and square.” They also liked word-searches and crosswords. Surprisingly, jigsaw puzzles numbered among children’s least favorite activities. “Too slow and frustrating,” they complained.

Two serendipitous results came from demanding educational after-school play. First, the children who played watched considerably less television than those who were given the luxury of choosing what they wanted to do with their free time. Second, because they were more active than their classmates, children in the structured play group tended to be more fit, less prone to Body Mass Indexes in the “overweight” and “obese” ranges.

“It seems a little funny to me,” says Patricia Ryan, a baby-boomer. “The research forced kids to do what we just did naturally when I was growing up, and the kids seemed amazed they actually were having fun doing what they called ‘old school’ stuff.”



[author_info]About the Author

Peter Savage is a career consultant and content contributor for Super Scholar, a site with incredibly thorough information, reviews, and even 2012 online college rankings.[/author_info]


This post was written by a guest writer for Prime Parents Club. We are not currently taking new guest writers.


  1. Crystal Paschal

    January 12, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    This is great! I am a preschool teacher, and people sometimes assume that I set aside time to “teach” my kids at home, Instead I try to turn their play time into a learning experience.

  2. christin

    January 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Guess my girls are “old school” naturally. ;)

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