Play in Schools: An Investigation of School Social Workers' Perceptions and Experiences.

Author:Dealey, Rhonda Peterson

The past three decades have seen an ever-growing demand for academic achievement and educational accountability (Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2009) due in part to the mediocre performance of U.S. students on global assessments (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2013). A shift toward increased classroom time at the expense of playful, experiential, and artistic endeavors has occurred as a result (Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer, 2009; Zigler & BishopJosef, 2009). At the same time, efforts to reduce or eliminate recess in order to gain increased instructional time have escalated (see Bohn-Gettler & Pelligrini, 2014, for a historical overview). Higher level learning expectations are being imposed on lower grades, and kindergarten has morphed into something that resembles "the new first grade" (Bassok, Latham, & Rorem, 2016).

Miller and Almon (2009) found that playtime is diminishing and even disappearing in kindergarten classrooms. A study of Los Angeles area preschools found that social pretend play during preschool decreased from 41 percent of the time in preschool in 1982 to 9 percent in 2002 (Howes & Wishard, 2004). Research suggests as many as 40 percent of schools have decreased recess time in order to increase time for core academics, and nearly a fourth of elementary schools do not provide recess to all grades (McKenzie & Kahan, 2008; Zygmunt-Fillwalk & Bilello, 2005). A greater number of school districts have decreased the amount of time spent in outdoor activity than have increased time spent outdoors (Burriss & Burriss, 2011). Yet a Gallup survey of principals reported that "principals overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact not only on the development of students' social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom" (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2010). A recent analysis suggested that third graders who have access to daily recess have improved classroom behavior (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009).

Proponents of play in school are concerned about the possible negative effects that students may experience as a result of decreased access to play opportunities and increased academic pressures (Bassok, Latham, & Rorem, 2016; Carlsson-Paige, 2008). School social workers have not yet joined in the debate about the gains or losses resulting from the recent changes to public education and play in schools. The author contends that school social workers are uniquely positioned to bring a holistic systems perspective to the conversation about the potential implications and consequences of implementing learning and achievement goals on children's development and well-being. This study has begun to explore the experiences and perceptions of school social workers related to play in schools.

Literature Review

Froebel's establishment of the kindergarten in the mid-nineteenth century in Germany was the manifestation of a philosophical marriage of learning and development. Froebel conceptualized that human existence is encompassed by three fundamental forces--doing, thinking, and feeling--suggesting that knowledge is an outgrowth of activity and creativity. hrough self-activity and self-revelation the child's mind grows. It is through play that the child's self is manifested and development and learning unfold (Froebel, 1887, 1891).

John Dewey, who propelled the American Progressive kindergarten movement in the early twentieth century, purported that children's play should be nurtured by teachers as a means of supporting their moral and mental growth. Children's play has educational significance, explained Dewey and therefore should be cultivated by teachers. Natural play helps children to gain meaning from their experiences and subsequently became an important part of early childhood education (Frost, 2010; Saracho & Spodek, 1995).

Piaget (1952) assigned play a significant role in the cognitive development of children. He purported that each developmental stage is marked with a specific type of play that serves a specific function: symbolic play in the pre-operational stage (ages three to seven) services the important skill of assimilation, and rule-bound game play in the concrete operational stage (ages seven to eleven) facilitates the reduction of ego-centrism and the beginning of perspective taking.

Vygotsky considered play to be "the leading source of development" (1967, p. 6) during the preschool years and proposed that play is necessary in order for children to advance developmentally. For Vygotsky, play features the creation of an imaginary situation and the taking on and acting out of roles. Paradoxically, he suggested, in play the child chooses that which is pleasurable and yet at the same time subordinates himself to sociocultural rules connected to the selected roles. Thus, in play, children are faced with tension between their desires and the rules of the game. Through this tension children learn to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors. Also significant to his theory is the notion that play creates a "zone of proximal development" (1967, p. 16) in which children are able to perform at a level higher than their performance: "In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself" (p. 16).

Today's children are playing differently and playing less, and scholars fear that perhaps their play has a lesser quality as well (Gray, 2011; Singer, Singer, D'Agostino, & DeLong, 2009; Tandon, Zhou, & Cristakis, 2012; Tullis, 2011). Changes in play have been ascribed to an increased popularity of technology including television and video games, increased fears of safety by adult caregivers, and decreased access to school recess (Singer, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006; Singer & Singer, 2007).

Play historian Howard Chudacoff (2007) contended that the mid-twentieth century saw the "golden age of unstructured play" for American children and that, since about 1955, children's unstructured free play has been declining steadily. Although difficult to quantify precisely, outdoor free play in particular has declined greatly in the United States. In a survey of 830 mothers of children ages three through twelve, 85 percent indicated that their children played outdoors less than they had when they were their child's age. Although 70 percent reported having played outdoors daily as children, only 31 percent reported that their children played outdoors daily (Clements, 2004). In a large cross-sectional national study, researchers found that only 51 percent of preschool-aged children were reported to play outside at least once a day with a parent even though 93 percent of parents perceived their neighborhoods as safe (Tandon et al., 2012). A 2010 international survey found that 69 percent of American children and 58 percent of children in the entire sample reported that their preferred place to play was outdoors, and more than 85 percent preferred playing outdoors with friends over watching television or computer play (Family Kids and Youth, 2010).

Research suggests that, during this time of decline in free play, children and young adults have experienced a rise of psychopathology (see Gray, 2011, for a more extensive review). A cross-temporal meta-analysis of studies utilizing the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2 or MMPI-Adolescent) was conducted in an effort to control for additional legitimate factors often cited to explain the rise in childhood psychopathology, such as changes in diagnostic mechanisms and access to evaluation (Twenge et...

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