Early Childhood Play is a Decisive Factor in Life - Director's Blog



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Early Childhood Play is a Decisive Factor in Life

Japanese Chinese

The importance of play in early childhood education is well known. Influenced by Friedrich Fröbel, the field of early childhood education in Japan gives play a basic and central role. It seems that Fröbel, the father of early childhood education, intuitively understood the significance of play.

Why is play so important for children? According to one theorist of early childhood education, "Play is an intrinsic mode of child behavior." I once asked this question to the principal of kindergarten, and I remember that she reacted with an expression that indicated that she couldn't understand the reason for asking such a question.

As a pediatrician, I am accustomed to making medical judgments based on evidence. For this reason, if play is important for children, I would like to have evidence that indicates how play benefits child development in some way.

Based on considerable evidence, American developmental psychologist, Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek claims that guided play, in particular, promotes cognitive, linguistic, and social development. I have been quietly paying attention to her work because up to the present, there have not been many specialists who have taken such a clear position regarding the influence of play on children.

Recently, I was asked to lecture on the meaning of early child care support, and while looking up past research on the meaning of play in early childhood, I came across the research of Dr. Susan Walker from the UK, which she had conducted over an extended period of time in Jamaica. I would like to introduce it here.

For some time, studies in Jamaica have indicated that delayed growth in height and weight adversely affects subsequent development. The cause of stunted children is sometimes attributed to hormonal abnormality, but in most cases, it is seen to be caused by poor nutrition from early childhood. A campaign was begun to distribute milk-based formula to malnourished children who tend to be more common in low-income families. Low-income families with children between 9 and 24 months were given 1 kg of milk-based formula every week for a period of two years. Dr. Walker proposed that local health workers who visit the families to deliver the powdered milk should spend one hour a week playing with the children with parent participation.

A total of 129 children who were 2 standard deviations below average height were divided into four groups: supplementation (those who received only the milk-based formula); supplementation and stimulation (those who received the milk-based formula and a play session one hour a week); stimulation (those who only received a play session for one hour a week); and control (those who neither received the milk-based formula nor the session). Furthermore, a group of 84 children of the same age who were not below average height were also included in this study. Of these five groups of children, Dr. Walker followed 167 children to the age of 17-18 and conducted a comprehensive study of their psychological development. In the study, she compared the five groups according to the results of a cognitive test and working memory test, size of vocabulary, reading ability, non-verbal reasoning ability and math skills.

The results were surprising. The children who only received the milk-based formula and those who received neither milk-based formula nor the play session showed, in comparison to the children who were not below average height, significantly lower scores in all areas. However, those who participated in the play session for one hour a week during early childhood showed no difference in their scores, excluding the three subscales in the cognitive test (verbal analogies, verbal IQ, and the full scale IQ), compared with the control children who did not have stunted growth. Furthermore, compared with the group that received only milk-based formula, with the exception of three categories including working memory, those who participated in play sessions in early childhood had significantly high scores.

Dr. Walker followed up on the participants in the study until the age of 22. According to her findings, not only did those who had play sessions in early childhood have higher adult IQ, better general knowledge, and had higher educational attainment, but they showed less involvement in fights and in serious violent behavior, and fewer symptoms of depression.

This research underscores an important point: play sessions lasted for only a period of two years (one hour a week for a total of 100 hours) and the sessions did not involve any particularly special play—the healthcare worker simply engaged in play with the children. The sessions were not special kinds of early education.

What do you conclude from this? I would have to say that play during the period of early childhood has the power to profoundly change the lives of children.

  • Susan P Walker, Susan M Chang, Christine A Powell, Sally M Grantham-McGregor. Effects of early childhood psychosocial stimulation and nutritional supplementation on cognition and education in growth-stunted Jamaican children: prospective cohort study. Lancet 2005; 366: 1804-07
  • Susan P. Walker, Susan M. Chang, Marcos Vera-Hernández, Sally Grantham-McGregor. Early Childhood Stimulation Benefits Adult Competence and Reduces Violent Behavior. Pediatrics May 2011, vol. 127 Issue 5
sakakihara_2013.jpg Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.