Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gifted children need the gift of play

"Mom, call the teacher and tell her there's not enough play time!" The gifted five-year-old wailed to his mother, distraught that kindergarten offered few of the creative, open-ended activities he enjoyed in pre-school. "I hardly get to build anything. We have to write all this stuff. It's no fun!"

It's hard to imagine that kindergarten could be stressful, especially for gifted children, but an environment so focused on academics and structured learning at such an early age can create stress for any child. In the rush to meet quotas and proficiency standards, many school districts are cutting back on recess, eliminating arts and physical education, and emphasizing academics over unstructured creative activities and time for play. For example, a 2006 University of Virginia study revealed how kindergarten teachers devoted as much time to reading as to math, science, social studies, music and art combined.

In an excellent article, Kenneth Ginsberg summarizes the importance of play, along with the "variety of factors that have reduced play, including a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play." Joan Almon writes about the cognitive, emotional and health risks associated with the decline in free play in schools and at home. In "The Disturbing Transformation of Kindergarten," Diane Marie highlights the classroom changes that emphasize developmentally inappropriate performance-based goals rather than what children need. And these goals may not be effective. She cites two studies as examples that suggest the early emphasis on reading is unnecessary and fails to maintain long-term benefits:

"Both compared children who learned to read at 5 with those who learned at 7 and spent their early years in play-based activities. Those who read at 5 had no advantage. Those who learned to read later had better comprehension by age 11, because their early play experiences improved their language development.''

Play is fundamental to learning and development for all children. It contributes to their cognitive development, social skills, and emotional well-being. It is the foundation for children's earliest social relationships, enhances the parent-child bond, and lights the spark of creativity and passion. Children discover what they love, what brings them joy and intrigue, and what is meaningful.

Through play, children get to:
  • Explore, create, invent, and generate new ideas 
  • Develop a sense of mastery over their world
  • Learn to share and work cooperatively with peers
  • Develop strategic thinking and problem-solving abilities
  • Improve fine motor and gross motor skills
  • Try out adult roles through pretend play
  • Improve attention and memory abilities
  • "Work through" frustration and fears by acting them out
  • Relieve and discharge stress

Sometimes it is assumed that gifted children need less play than others. Their intensity, introversion, and focused interests can be misinterpreted as evidence that they don't need time for play. Stereotypical assumptions of perfectionism and overachievement can create an expectation that intellectual pursuits should take precedence. Yet, gifted children need the same unstructured play as other children. Arguably, even more so. Here's why:

1. Gifted children thrive when they can be creative, inventive, and use their minds productively. Play can incite their love for learning and discovery, without the pressure of performance, achievement standards, or conforming to others' rules. 

2. Gifted children benefit from learning to cooperate with peers. They grow from learning to adapt with friends who are not gifted, and by meeting the challenge when with gifted peers. They learn important lessons about social skills, managing anxiety, coping with competitive feelings, and what types of social interactions feel comfortable for them.

3. Gifted children develop a sense of mastery when they accomplish something challenging, and a demanding play situation may require more from them than an academic environment. Whether it is a computer game or a baseball field, gifted children develop humility and perspective when they fail, try again, and, perhaps, succeed.

4. Gifted children discharge stress through play and can "work through" some of their anxiety by acting out conflicts. If a child is bullied at school, she might use dolls to express her anger. If a child is feeling insecure, he might develop "superhero powers" in his play with friends. Gifted children are aware of their differences, and have difficulty finding like-minded peers. Play can be an outlet for their frustrations when they feel isolated or lonely.

A 2013 study conducted by Sally Rapp Beiser and colleagues reported how gifted fifth and sixth graders viewed play. They identified play as necessary for motivation, problem-solving abilities, attention, learning, and team-building. The authors urged parents of gifted children to decrease the structured activities many of these children pursue and ensure that they have time for unstructured play.

Given the social, emotional, and academic benefits of play, insisting that gifted children - all children - have plenty of opportunity for free, unstructured play time is essential. It seems that a reversal of No Child Left Behind quotas, overscheduled activities, and performance driven goals are in order. All children deserve the gift of play.

This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted@Play. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at


  1. So frustrating that schools are eliminating recess and other activities when children get so much out of them. My children are miserable when they don't have enough time outside.

  2. I agree with the previous statement that recess and activities are beneficial for children. It's a good way to keep them happy and healthy, which is one of the best of gifts you can give a child. Schools shouldn't cut back so much on recess and fun activities, because that's a big part of a child's growth.

  3. I absolutely agree! Play is so important in our childrens lives and we all know play time is the best time!
    Heidi :)