The Power of Play in Combating Inequality
February 17, 2022
by Lindsey Flannery
Play. It’s the common denominator in the equation that equals healthy, vibrant kids. We know, from an abundance of studies over time, that play isn’t just fun -- it is essential to children’s development. Play is how children learn the skills they need to navigate life. Because of this, elevating playful learning is a powerful way to reduce inequality and the effects of structural racism on children.
According to Dr. Jacqueline Douge, pediatrician, writer and speaker; and co-author of an American Academy of Pediatrics statement on racism and child health, play is how children learn early skills like self-esteem, physical ability and cognitive processing.
In a recent Minnesota Children’s Museum event on the importance of play in combating inequality, Dr. Douge stated, “play is an opportunity to build the social and emotional well-being of a child.”1 This makes play essential for all children, but especially those facing the damaging effects of structural racism. It’s widely accessible, it’s often free, and the impact speaks for itself -- but still, play is not being prioritized by the systems that support children and families.
At the same event, Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a Twin Cities internist and pediatrician; equity advocate and champion of how physicians and health systems can address racial and health equity, explained that “reframing the educational ‘achievement gap’ as an “opportunity gap” places the onus on the system to change, rather than putting the focus on meeting standardized outcomes and pressuring children to attain certain scores on a test.”
Educators must recognize that children and their families are not responsible for overcoming the harmful impact of structural racism; rather, the system itself must intervene for the sake of children’s health and wellbeing. Schools, healthcare systems, nonprofits, cities, and churches and other social structures can and must address the deep inequities that are harming children.
Because of the way structural racism is embedded into the fabric of our society, intervening meaningfully may seem an insurmountable task. This is why play is so powerful. It provides a proven, low-barrier, effective way to reduce the inequalities that children face.
Kidzeum is in a unique position to leverage the power to play to create more equity among children in Springfield. Not only do the exhibits provide opportunities for free play and self-guided exploration, but the STEAM residency incorporates both teacher-led learning and free play for all second graders in the Springfield Public School district.
Dr. Nicole Nash Moody, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching, Learning and School Culture at Springfield Public Schools and Kidzeum board member, said “this two-week residency provides an opportunity for some students who have a financial barrier to attend… It breaks down barriers to equal access to experiences that promote student advancement and education in science, technology, engineering, art and math.”
Dr. Moody continued, “The residency at Kidzeum gives access to a combination of structured and unstructured play for underrepresented populations to learn about those fields, and perhaps to take on one of those fields as an adult. They have math class, reading class, all the classes they would have in the classroom - and then they have recess/open time that’s fully unstructured, when they can explore the exhibits and play and dance. Children learn best and do best through play.”
When engaged in play, kids experiment, they imagine, they solve problems and work through disagreements, they use their bodies and their brains, and through that, they’re developing the skills they need to navigate their lives.
Studies show that there is immense benefit in both free play and adult-guided play. According to a white paper by The LEGO Foundation, while free play helps children learn skills like self-control, adult-guided play is most effective for helping children learn specific concepts. Care providers should offer plenty of both. Especially in formal education settings, where teachers often switch between direct instruction and stepping back, there’s great value in fostering children’s learning through guided play.2
When educational institutions like Kidzeum provide more opportunity for play, both free and structured, they’re creating space for essential development to take place. They’re helping to close the gap in skills, build more resilient children, and prepare them for whatever the future holds.
The science is deep and resources abound: the key is increasing awareness of the power of play as a tool in removing the barriers of inequality. According to the LEGO Foundation paper, “Playful moments naturally harness characteristics that propel children’s learning: being active and minds on, finding meaning and joy in an experience, trying out ideas and interacting with others.” There is nothing to lose and our children’s futures to be gained by increasing the prominence of play in their lives.
2. Jensen, H., Pyle, A., Zosh, J. M., Ebrahim, H. B., Zaragoza Scherman, A., Reunamo, J., & Hamre, B. K. (2019). Play facilitation: the science behind the art of engaging young children (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK.