It's a typical day at the Children’s School at Carnegie Mellon University, and as director Sharon Carver walks from room to room, children ages 3 to 5 are bursting with activity.
In one space a little boy digs in a sandbox, in another corner children try to match recycling materials to the correct bins, and at another table children are navigating the serious task of sharing and shaping Play-Doh.
After taking stock of the activities Carver asks a reporter, “Which things were play and which things are not play?”
It's a hard one to answer. Even the word “play” is loaded, according to Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C.
“A lot of the dialogue doesn’t go beyond this four-letter word of 'play,' and it really matters what you mean by that,” he said.
Kyle said many researchers are eager to see the connection between play and academic success in young kids. But in reality, the link is not always easy to trace.
“You have within the same body of work studies that seem contradictory to each other," he said, "and then when you get into the details you start to appreciate just how hard it is to demonstrate that play is the be-all, end-all answer to really fostering children's positive development.”
Snow said part of the problem is that many studies are correlational, meaning that children who have the opportunity to play might acquire some positive behavioral skills. But which came first? The skills that allow them to play or the play that helps them develop those skills?
For example, do kids who play with blocks improve their math skills or do kids play with blocks in the first place because they have an innate understanding of shapes and geometry? Snow called it a chicken-or-egg problem.
“The resulting research database that you look at has this whole string of findings that could be used to argue that play is foundation for learning, or you could also argue that differences in play are manifested in children's abilities in other areas,” he said.
So what does the research say? Snow pointed to a large pool of data that show recess resulted in higher scores on standardized tests for school-aged children. A May 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University found students were better behaved and more attentive after transitioning from recess to the classroom. But Snow also said play thoughtfully incorporated into the curricula is beneficial, though it might be hard for some to see.
“There is a viewpoint that play goes on in early childhood classrooms as a way to avoid teaching, ‘Oh the kids are in the block corner so the teacher gets a break,’ but a really well-prepared intentional teacher has really put the effort in and put the work in and really knows how to bring the children to a place of learning in that context,” he said.
Shannon Wanless, an assistant professor of applied psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, said some teachers view play as a luxury they don't have time for, especially if they are trying to prepare students for tests. She said it takes a leap of faith for a teacher to integrate useful play.
“It might feel better to drill and kill addition problems, which don’t actually show a lot of improvement in addition scores, but may seem like a better idea,” she said.
Wanless also said there is a way to include play and creativity into the academic process, to reap benefits in the longer term.
“We need to figure out how we add three oranges and two apples — are we doing to do it with the Play-Doh creating models, or are you going to use the ruler to measure out something, or are you going to write out using words?" she said, "so coming up with lots of different strategies that in some ways is a creative form of play, but is really focused on the classroom.”
Back at the Children's School, incorporating play is an integral part of the strategy. So is studying it.
As a laboratory school for CMU's psychology department, there are two-way mirrors in the classrooms, microphones in the ceilings and college students on the edges of the rooms, quietly scribbling notes.
Carver said teachers have a list of six goals they try to instill, ranging from from communication and artistic expression, to cooperation and independence. She said those characteristics can be taught in a playful way.
“In our case we feel like in fact through what everyone would call play, like Play-Doh, like building with blocks, you can learn a lot of things," Carver said. "So we try to make the environment an environment that is playful, even when everyone has to do this task and there is a right answer. It doesn’t mean there’s only one way to get there or one approach to it."
She said they are also trying to prepare the preschool children for the expectations and rigors of the bigger pond — elementary school — which might have a more rigid structure and different goals and demands.
“How to interact in a group and give your idea but not monopolize the conversation," Carver said. "The self-regulation skills that are required are enormous. You don’t necessarily want to sit in your seat, but that’s what we’re doing right now, so what can you do to manage that situation.”
Snow said even with all the data, observation and best practices, a roadmap for guaranteed success doesn’t exist.
“We know enough about the diversity of children’s learning to know not all children are going to respond to the exact same things in the same exact way,” he said. “And we want to think that way so we can tell a teacher that’s confronted with kids: this is how to do it and this is going to lead you to success. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was that easy? And we know it’s not that easy.”
While it might not be easy, it doesn't mean you can't have fun while you're doing it.