The Importance of Playing, Puttering, and Pretending

Current brain development & education research supports: early academics does not strengthen the young child's development. Playing is a young child's work.


When our first child was born I was determined to do everything I could to “optimize” his development. This had even begun during my pregnancy, when I listened to lots of classical music, took lots of walks, thought lots of good thoughts. (This was a good start, mainly because these were all activities that inspired and soothed me, and scientists now know for sure that a mother’s stress — or joy — has a direct effect on her baby’s brain.)

But once our son was here, an odd sort of frenzied insecurity set in, about making sure I was “doing enough” to stimulate his development. I promptly bought a book on baby exercise—yes, baby exercise!! I dutifully followed the prescribed twice-a-day regimen of moving his various tiny limbs around and about, folding and stretching his new little body this way and that. It was supposed to get his sensory-motor development off to a head start, which sounded good to me.

Good News, Parents–You Can Relax!

As luck and fate would have it, just a couple weeks into our workout plan, I attended my first R.I.E. class, and what I learned there that very first day carried the blessed ring of truth. Actually, more like the booming clang of truth. And I got it.

I could relax—I didn’t have to “improve upon” or “optimize” anything! My child had an innate intelligence that knew exactly how to unfold his unique body. It didn’t need me to pose it, bend it, or prop it into positions that were not yet natural for him.

Unfortunately, it isn’t so much their child’s body that parents today are looking to optimize in the early years—it’s their mind. In an understandable desire to help assure our children’s success, we try to give them a head start by beginning earlier and earlier to teach them the alphabet, numbers, maybe a little pre-algebra. (I’m just kidding—I think! I’m keeping a close eye on that Yo Gabba Gabba robot for surreptitious math tutoring.)

But current brain development and education research supports what Waldorf education founder Rudolf Steiner taught almost one hundred years ago: early academics does not strengthen the young child’s development, but can instead undermine it! Intellectual work at this age diverts energy from critical organ growth in order to recruit areas of the brain that are not yet meant to be “on line.”

How A Child Really Learns

Due to the parts of her brain that are most active in the early years, the young child — up until around age seven — relates to the world primarily through her senses and her body. In other words, she is a sensory-motor creature — while we, the parents, are primarily cognitive creatures. (Recognizing how different young children are from adults “under the hood” — in terms of brain development and function — can help parents with their effectiveness and their sanity!)

So a young child’s primary modes of learning are:

  • Sensing (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touchingindeed, lots of touching!) and
  • Doing (moving her body and engaging physically with her world)

Understanding this dual fact about their child can help parents with a BIG point of frustration that arises in the very first year:

  • Know that for a child to touch something, or to do with her body, is similar to an adult thinking about that same thing! This sheds new light on the “No, sweetie, don’t touch that” reflex that it seems we parents have overdeveloped!

What Teaches Your Child Best?

Activities that engage both learning modes – sensing and doing – are the richest, healthiest, and most effective forms of learning for the young child.

And the activity that most powerfully fires up these two learning aspects in the child is play! Play is the all-important work of the child until around seven… or should be. But in our hyper-accelerated culture we’ve lost an understanding and appreciation for just how critically important play is in the healthy development of our children. We somehow see it as a waste of time. A toy cannot simply be a toy, it has to be educational. Play cannot be for its own sake, it needs to be organized, improved upon, and packaged as “enrichment.”

But when a child engages in open-ended play (that is, un-organized, un-“improved upon,” and un-packaged), he engages the all-important senses: as he imagines the wooden crate as his pirate ship, he sees the tall mast, hears the crashing waves, feels the salt spray. As he climbs in and hoists the sail (Mom’s favorite guest towel), his body and brain are engaged in a stunningly intricate series of sensory-motor interactions.

In an hour of such play, he is stimulating robust growth of important new neural connections in the areas of the brain that most need it at that age. This development will serve as an important foundation for later academics.

The Cost of a Head Start

Child psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, has devoted his career to studying the effects of early academics. When visiting Stanford University, he saw architecture students playing with old-fashioned erector sets in class. Why? They didn’t get enough hands-on play enough as children! As a result, the sophisticated computer drafting technologies don’t serve them as well because they don’t have a 3-dimentional “real-world” frame of reference for the 2-dimensional images on the screen.

The same problem exists when we introduce abstract intellectual concepts to young children — like the alphabet. Letters are symbols, and the areas of the brain that process and make sense of symbols are not yet available in an integral way in the young child. Children live in the realm of the concrete — what they take in through their senses.

Symbolic thinking introduced too early not only puts a demand on the young child’s physiology-building energies (as mentioned above), it has little depth of meaning for the child who hasn’t interacted much with the real world symbolized by those numbers and letters. This can lead to a more superficial interaction with words, ideas, and concepts. Not the best way to begin a child’s lifelong learning!

As Dr. Elkind points out, “The language of things must proceed the language of words, or else the words don’t mean anything.”

I’d love to hear about ways in which your child enjoys hands-on engagement with the 3-dimentional world — in other words, how he or she is learning “the language of things“?

Published on: January 26, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Marcy Axness
Marcy Axness, PhD, is an early development specialist, parent coach, and author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers. She believes we need to raise a generation who are "hardwired" with the brain-based capacities of peacemakers. Marcy is offering Dr. Greene's readers a free copy of her "7-Step Guide: Helping Your Child Release Stuck Behaviors eBooklet, a unique, powerful tool for parents to use with children of all ages
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Recent Comments

Why do you use “her” to refer to young children?

Omg, Kelly, so sorry for the very long delay in a reply to your excellent question! It is usually my intention to alternate using “him” and “her” when referring to children of any age… and I do so in my book to a (roughly) balanced degree. Clearly I didn’t check that here, so this article was unintentionally “her”-heavy. In today’s era of growing recognition of the myriad aspects of identity on the gender spectrum, pronouns in our written/spoken language are a challenge.

I agree. Play is what we do! I’ve been told that my daughter is super bright and ahead of her class (daycare/learning center) that she attends only two days a week. We have always just played with her and her brother. She’s 4 and he is about to turn 2.
My philosophy has always been that children need to be able to play to learn. We have a room full of toys. This of course is my favorite room and where all the learning occurs…( but I jokingly tell people all the time that I homeschool my kids when they aren’t at the learning center) For instance…IF we are building with blocks. I’d tell my son I want to build a castle with all the blue blocks.. I would do it with his help and then I would hand him the gorilla from the zoo talkers set and ask if he wants to be the gorilla that destroys the castle… If he wants to know the sound of a gorilla Then I would make the sound and then he repeats after me as he destroys the castle we built…. (Yes he LOVES to build with blocks)

My daughter also learned using that method. We just imagined and played with the toys and we constantly get told how smart they are. My son is 23 months… And asks me questions in full sentences all the time. “Mommy, what is that?”, or “what is this?” “I want to see that.”

I also do not talk baby talk to my kids… We play using real conversation and hearing words in sentences as they are meant to be said. I’d love to hear your comments on baby talk and how it can be helpful or detrimental to a child’s learning.

Sounds like a wonderfully rich play/learning environment you’ve created for your children, Kristie!

Your question brings up memories of Magda Gerber and the RIE philosophy she helped to pioneer and teach to parents. (Key RIE insights have informed many of the core principles in my own work.) It was from our RIE teacher (Elizabeth Memel, a loving shout-out to you!) that I first learned the idea that indeed, not only did we not NEED to use baby-talk with our babies, but that it was a subtle form of disrespect to do so. Meaning, it conveyed, “I don’t trust that you will attend to me if I use a normal speaking voice.” Upshot: there was virtually no baby-talk going on in the Axness family!

Meanwhile, there’s been research done on so-called “motherese” and the results can be a little confusing (like so MUCH parenting “guidance” out there, right??). Yes, it’s been found that babies seem to more readily attend to (prefer?) the exaggerated pitch contours and slower speech of motherese; and some language-learning gains have been documented through motherese. But the gains are marginal and filled with what we call “confounding variables.” Here’s a great article summarizing it all (and, spoiler alert, coming down on the non-motherese side).

And while I have Magda Gerber in mind, I’d love to share with you something I learned from her during our years in RIE — the nourishing value of what she called “wants-nothing quality time.” This would be a bit of time you might weave into your children’s rich play tapestry, during which you are simply present for whatever they have in their mind / imagination. It’s a potent contributor to their self-esteem, since the (unspoken) message is, “I value and respect you so much that I am devoting my attention and my being entirely to you and what you would like to do.” It sounds so simple, and yet it’s actually a fairly rare experience for young children — to have an adult’s full attention and presence, without the adult’s directions or agenda. Very powerful!

Love this article. My son (age 3) and I are off on our own journey and I follow his lead as much as possible. We run through puddles, look for bugs and roll in the grass. He also like to throw things. Not in anger really p(though that happens here and there) but because it is fun. He is not into books really. Has started to request one here and there, but last about 3 minutes. Makes me wonder what traditional school has to offer someone like him? And we cannot afford Waldorf -which I love. Then you add on a serious speech disorder… many of us our turning to homeschooling to not make our kids’ lives so miserable.

Why or why do we not have outdoor kindergarten?

I totally agree that play is all important, and that we didn’t get enough of it as kids (I actually was that engineering student playing with Lego’s in a 300 level class) and our kids get even less. That being said, I disagree that symbolic thinking is developmentally inappropriate. Speech is symbolic, and our children begin learning language from the beginning. My son learned his letter sounds right along with body parts and animal sounds. Don’t underestimate your kids. I think where we get into trouble is when we pull kids away from playing to teach them. EVERYTHING at the preschool age should be a game, and the minute mom or child gets stressed, its two minutes past when you should have stopped. For example, we learned letter sounds at 20 months because I would say them as we worked on an alphabet puzzle (he loves puzzles) and he absorbed it the way kids absorb everything. I guess my point is that with good individuallized planning you can have it all: play all day, get ahead academically, and have it be stress free. The child’s brain is amazing that way.

Check into Kinesthetic learning style, many Dr’s wanna prescribe meds claiming ADHD and many kids are not ADHD which is taking from a strong child I believe.

I agree whole heartedly with this article. You asked how we do this in our preschool program. One of the areas I am currently trying to do is to remember not to interrupt the children. For instance a child is concentrating on putting layers of paint on a paper. My adult brain wants to intervene and suggest she stop putting so much paint on the paper because it is going to be so wet it will tear when we take it off the easel. Now I am trying to retrain myself to let her continue. When the paper tears she can see there is a problem and seek solution to the problem with her next painting we interrupt children’s learning so often.

What a powerful idea, Rita — to choose one specific behavior of OURS as adults to develop more mindfulness about, such as interrupting a child’s (often unfathomable) process with our guidance, corrections, etc. We can even interrupt them with our most loving, supportive acknowledgment / observations of what they’re doing. (This is often suggested as a more constructive alternative to praise.)

As an example, I’m reminded of a time lonnnnng ago, when I was at one of those little baby “gym” classes with Eve. (In general I’m not a big fan of most of those programs–often so over-stimulating and unrespectful in their “rah-rah” approach–but this was a particularly gentle, minimally directed one that felt okay.) Eve (probably two years old or so) had climbed on her own up the whole ladder up to the perch leading to the slide… and was just standing there at the top, gazing down. I was just observing, noticing how she didn’t seem frightened exactly — just… digesting her experience of the sensation of being up there.

“Eve, you’re at the top of the slide!” It was the class facilitator. True, he wasn’t doing the usual rah-rah praise thing, a la “Good job, Eve!” so I could appreciate that. However, I wish I had video of Eve’s face, her entire being, in the moment he called out that “benign” comment. It snapped her so abruptly out of her own inner process, it looked like whiplash! This obviously made a big impression on me, since this took place over twenty years ago.

I’d love to hear about any discoveries you make, Rita.

Thank you for this! I was hoping you might share or direct me towards the research that suggests that early academic/symbolic work can tap the resources for the child’s developing physiology? This seems intuitively plausible, but I’d love to be able to share this information with parents/clients. Thanks!

I’m looking into getting some background on this, Rebecca — checking with the anthroposophical early education community. Here’s something that might be of interest to you — Suggate has been doing some of the only research on the cost/benefit ratio of beginning early reading… though most of what gets written about is simply that there is little benefit.

I’ll add more when I find it — thanks for being interested!

As an EY teacher/NN of 17 years I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment here. However, I now spend my days at home with my chatty 19 month old, who has been reciting 1-10 since Christmas, now in 3 languages, and, more importantly, now spontaneously counts objects/pictures with a surprising degree of reliability at literally every chance he gets! As you commented above, I’m quick to tell everyone that we didn’t ‘teach’ him and that we absolutely disapprove of being pushy! His vocabulary is astounding too! His first obsession was shapes and now numbers have taken over. However, he also spends at least an hour of each day pottering about outside in our large garden and woods behind. He also leads the play pretty much all of every day and we just try to meet him where he’s at and to let him explore the world at his own pace. He has an Uncle who is extremely academic and has seemed to have a photographic memory since tiny too. Whilst I’m very proud of my wonderful son, I’m also a little bit fearful of what the future holds… We just plan to keep providing stimulation as he wants it but to make sure he has a lot of social time and relaxed or physical play with children his age to balance things out too. Parenting is such a daunting responsibility isn’t it?!

Indeed it is, Heather. Sounds like you are meeting your son well, and just be aware of when you might be overthinking things. That is a HUGE tendency of mine and I’m constantly having to catch myself and take a deep breath.

It is difficult when you’re a bright adult to get out of your head! To develop intuition, we need to ease off on our incessant thinking — and intuition will be one of your greatest and most important qualities that will serve you as a parent.

You are clearly a thinker. Doing things with you hands, creatively — alongside your son? — with clay, beeswax or such is very helpful.


Hi, I wonder what your take is on children that actually have a strong interest in early learning, without parents/carers pushing?

My parents used to read to me as a child, and I was so interested that I pushed for them to tell me what each word read, and by 3.5 I could read by myself.

Great question, Cristina. Just as I don’t think pushing/cajoling is healthy, neither do I think it’s respectful, loving or constructive to hamstring a young mind that for whatever combination of reasons is precocious. We never want to squelch curiosity, after all! And I think that is the key: responding to that curiosity in a way that preserves a wide-open field for it, if that makes sense. As opposed to channeling it right away into the narrow context of academics. Reading because one is hungry to discover more about what the words mean is FAR different than reading because it has been assigned… or it will be in a drill at tomorrow’s class, etc.

My son was also an early reader, with no “warning” at all. He hadn’t been sounding out words or asking about letters or anything of the sort. Yes, we’d read to him a lot from the very beginning, and we had a lot of conversation in the house, but that was it. So it was quite a surprise when he started reading “One Fish Two Fish” to us one day! His dad did a couple clever little tests to check whether he was reciting it from memory, but nope, he was reading. (That said, we did come to realize over time that he has something akin to photographic memory. I’m also forever grateful to his dad that he had the presence of mind that day to roll video of Ian reading the book. I’m not a big fan of having kids “perform” for the camera, but I gotta admit, that footage is precious!)

Given my thoughts on early academics, what a funny cosmic joke on me, eh? When people would realize Ian could read, my response was usually a quick and somewhat defensive, “I didn’t teach him!”

Intresting facts