unsplash children playing with big red ball

Could the Recent Decline in Children’s Reading Skills Be Due to the Decline in Free Play?

This letter wondering if the decline in reading skills could be linked to a decline in plain old playing comes to us from Barbara Chutroo, a social worker and dance/movement therapist who teaches psychology and child development at the New York City College of Technology.

Dear Let Grow:

I recently read that 4th grade reading skills have declined. As a professor in a New York City community college, I see first-hand the low level of reading skills in my students. However it is not just reading but language skills overall that they are lacking. And I believe this is linked to their early childhood experience, although this is purely an observational assessment.

When I observe children in the park engaged in an adult-supervised activity, like sports, I see that they are not talking to one another. Usually they are spaced too far apart, rendering speech more difficult. Either quietly or impatiently they are waiting for their turn, or some adult direction. Free range kids, on the other hand — kids who are playing without adult supervision — are interacting, negotiating, discussing (okay, arguing), establishing rules and making full use of complex language skills. I believe that children need this constant application of language in order for competent language skills to develop.

As for my students, many of them have working parents who did not organize play dates. They have few if any siblings (since family size has become considerably smaller than in the past), and spent a good deal of their childhood homebound, all of which would have limited their engagement with language. I find that they do not use correct verb tenses, become flustered when asked to explain simple concepts, have limited vocabularies and frequently misuse words. I believe that they have not had enough everyday practice in using speech while growing up, and that this practice most often comes from children playing unsupervised amongst themselves.

Of course, adults could try to make up for this deficit, but adults rarely challenge children to practice their basic language skills in ways the child finds interesting. Technology may also play a part. But I think that, given the option, young children would rather actively play unsupervised with one another than watch their screens.

Speech precedes reading. If you don’t have competent speech, you cannot understand or effectively use the written word.

I wonder if you agree?  This is just another argument In favor of your free range, Let Grow principles.

Barbara Chutroo

I thanked Barbara for making us think about the link between speaking and reading. It does indeed make sense that the decline in the amount of play in kids’ lives would affect their skills in a lot of areas — problem-solving, physical fitness, and social skills, but also language.

That’s because kids learn best when they are engaged. And of course they’re super-engaged when they’re playing, because play is not something they HAVE to do. They do it because they want to. And to make it fun, keep it fair, change the rules, add new wrinkles, or even start or stop the game, communication is required. Just like a tourist motivated to find a bathroom will do everything possible to make herself understood even if she doesn’t speak the language, kids are motivated to get their points across to make the game work, and so — desperately, eagerly, automatically — they learn to communicate. They learn language.

Remove play and we could be removing the most educational, vocabulary-building part of their day.

Remove it to add more time for classwork or homework and you’ve got your SAT word of the day: irony. – L.S.


Photo from Unsplash by @cirala_sky .