Study less, play more – why playtime is essential for children

A changing world requires changing tools. However, this does not mean that we humans are always able to keep up with these changes. Additionally, globalization dramatically increased inequality. Both within and between countries disparity is growing fast and, in order to help unify a world that is becoming increasingly fractured, we need leaders with a strong sense of stewardship and innovators able to find creative solutions to current and future challenges. The bad news? If the situation does not improve, we probably won’t have either of them.
It is of vital importance, therefore, to question how far are we succeeding in fostering the proper tools and (soft) skills new generations need, to become those new leaders and inventors.
The World Bank, in its annual World Development Report of 2018 – entirely dedicated to learning and education – has already provided us with an answer to this. According to it, among the 650 million children attending primary school a staggering 250 million are not even learning basic skills – of which 120 million have not even completed four years of school.
If you though that this issue regards only developing counties, think again. Even the most advanced states are refusing to give up their nineteen- and twenty- century style of education, keeping to feed new generations with a mechanical way of teaching, a ‘rote’ and standardized learning detached from reality.
Summarizing the situation, not only we are failing to teach our children the basics, but also to teach them that breadth of skills – such as creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration – so desperately needed to address the challenges of our future global society.
Skills like those, however, have less to do with what is being taught and more to do with how children learn. As long as the school system stays “disconnected from the skills needed to function in today’s labour market” – as stated in the Global Human Capital Report – we won’t make much progress.
One possible valid approach to solve this issue is to go back to the most natural and engaging form of learning for children: playing.
A growing body of scientific evidences underscores how playing is paramount to children’s development and learning: just imagine how powerful it could be to simply pretend to be a superhero or to host a party with imaginary friends in the process of developing a child’s original thinking – one of the main cognitive process in creativity. And, again, how playing group games can help boosting cooperation, communications, leadership and negotiation through the understanding and the following of rules.
In “Real Play Every Day: an urgent call to action,” K. Robinson talks about play as the primary way through which we learn to understand and experience the world around us, while the American Association of Paediatrics suggested that play enhances attentional inhibition, cognitive flexibility, emotional intelligence and brain functioning, leading to a better executive control.

At Davos, the uber-elite gathering of global power brokers, global CEOs and AI experts argued that free play encourages kids to achieve a goal avoiding distractions and to develop agency, collaboration and creativity—just the skills that workers will need to maintain an edge over the robots. Yes, because there is also the concrete possibility we could all be replaced by AI if we don’t focus more on what makes us uniquely ‘human’.
The potential for workers to be displaced by automated technology is real, and the angst associated with joblessness—and loss of identity—could lead to social unrest.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma stated: “each technology revolution has made the world unbalanced. To shield future generations from such a fate, we need to let them get out the blocks and start building”.
We forgot and underestimated the importance of those activities that help us from a very young age to explore the world, create new ideas and relate with others.
We are trying to train our kids to be better computers, but our kids will never be better computers than computers. There is no doubt that children need to learn how to do math and science, but they also need to learn how to be human, a lesson that is as hard as essential, both to teach and to learn.
As said by Kai Fu Lee of Google’s China office during the convention “there are four things AI cannot do as well as humans: creativity, dexterity, compassion, and complexity. Empathy would be paramount – we have a human responsibility to do this.”
The problem is that children today are less free than they have ever been before”, as put into words by the psychologist P. Grey.
Researches from the American Academic of Paediatrics show that the percentage of children’s playtime decreased of 25% from 1981 to 1997 while nowadays only half of US kids walk or play outside every day.
One third of UK children does not have recess during the school-day (even if it is demonstrated that the ones who do perform better) and 20% of them does not play outside at all.
According to Edelman Intelligence 56% of respondents in a survey of 12.710 parents in 10 countries said their kids spent less than an hour every day playing outside—less time than prisoners in a maximum-security prison spend outdoors. One in 10 kids never play outside, and two-thirds of parents say their kids play less than they did.
But what are kids doing if they are not playing? Smartphones and video-games play a role, and so does over-scheduling kids in organized activities, such as sport, music and tutoring, which do not fit into the definition of play.
Parents know kids need these academic activities so they relegate free play to a trivial pastime that can be sacrificed while their expectations and requirements are pretty high.
Yet, pushing kids to spend more time studying has not translated to more engagement in schools. Gallup data shows that about 26% of fifth-graders had a low level of engagement in school; by 12th grade, that figure had reached 68%. And, of course, social pressure, stress and frustration never helped any kid in this sense.
The point however is that playing is essential, not trivial. Therefore, the question is not whether we should do something or not, but rather what should we do and how.
In this matter, “paediatricians can play an important part emphasizing the role of a balanced curriculum that includes the importance of playful learning for the promotion of healthy child development” (M. Yogman – AAP); in brief, prescribing children to play.
Researchers have identified various categories of play: imaginative (which lays the foundations for creativity, allowing kids to express feelings, communicate, and experiment with reality), constructive (such as construction games linked to the development of resilience or grit and spatial visualization skills related to math-learning and problem-solving – how do I build a tower that does not fall down?), physical (which is akin to the play seen in animals that enables children to take risks in a relatively safe environment and use body and mind in tandem), and dramatic (such as pretend and role plays that help with emotional self-regulation and critical relationship skills, including empathy, cooperation, leadership and negotiation).
All of them are necessary and fundamental in four main domains: socially, physically, emotionally and cognitively.
Luckily, many are the examples already going on nowadays about playful learning, from the Montessori method of education – focused on kids’ curiosity and their direct approach to the surrounding world – to the revolutionary school ‘Ad Astra’ created by Elon Musk and tailored for every child’s special interest; from the FIRST robotic programmes – boosting STEM skills and social engagement – to the ‘ANJI PLAY’ special Chinese kindergarten – where children are put in front of logical and real life problems and have to solve them.
Maybe not every spark of hope is lost after all…


  1. file:///C:/Users/lucag/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/9781464810961%20(1).pdf  –  this is the link for the World Development Report of 2018; I know, it’s long but, trust me, it is totally worth it!
  2.  –  this is the link for the Global Human Capital Report of 2017… it’s a great insight into the society of tomorrow!
  3. babies learn and why robots can’t compete 
  4. Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children
  5. cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain
  6. benefits of toy blocks: The science of construction play
  7. Role of Play in Leadership Development 
  8. Musk’ s school Ad Astra 
  9. Play in China
  10. FIRST robotic program 

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