The letter, which was signed by 130 childhood education specialists, argues that ‘the role of play is being down-valued’ and that in sending children into primary education early, they are being subjected to ‘tests and targets’ in the place of the ‘active, creative, outdoor play which is recognised by psychologists as vital for physical, social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing’.
So what is it about play which makes it so beneficial to child development? Well, as developmental/evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray puts it, play is ‘behaviour in which means are more valued than ends’. This intrinsic nature of play means that a child’s attention is better engaged and therefore, the problem solving, concepts, relationships and observations made whilst playing stimulate neural activity more effectively.
In 2001, a longitudinal study carried out by The Home School Study of Language and Literacy Development showed that there was a consistent relationship between the language children used in play and their performance in literacy and language measures. Another study, in 2002, showed that by the end of their sixth year in education, US students whose learning had been academically directed achieved significantly lower results than those of students who had attended play-based programmes.
Two studies carried out in New Zealand showed that although reading ability didn’t vary between those who started formal literacy lessons at age 5 and those who started at age 7, there was a difference in their attitude to learning. Those who started school later had a more positive approach to reading and were better at comprehension. It has also been suggested that children who are ‘schoolified’ at a young age suffer from more stress and mental health problems due to the loss of playful experiences and increased achievement pressures.
Wendy Ellyatt, founding director and CEO of the Save Childhood Movement, has set up the campaign ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ in attempt to stir up debate around this issue. Considering the wealth of evidence supporting a later start for school children, it seems that the UK Government have no choice but to take it into consideration.