It's a magical part of childhood, and something you assume every child does, naturally.
But increasingly, education experts say play is simply disappearing from childrens' lives. A recent study from the Alliance for Childhood surveyed more than two hundred teachers in New York and Los Angeles, and in March, released a report called "Crisis in Kindergarten." It found that on average, the teachers reported kindergarteners spent two to three hours on math and reading instruction, including testing. And the kids spent less than 30 minutes playing.
Here in Chicago, the chief officer of early childhood education for the Chicago Public Schools said she's seen the same thing.
"Not only has there been a decrease of playtime at school, there's a decrease of playtime at home," said Dr. Barbara Bowman, who adds that the patterns of childrens' lives have simply changed.
"Children are in center-based programs, whether it's child care or preschool beginning at age three. In addition, many children are involved in sports and athletics programs, even when they are four and five years old," Bowman said.
So those long hours of Duck, Duck, Goose, Tag, or jumping rope are often replaced by the Three R's, or activities that are led and organized by teachers.
"The imbalance of play and the more teacher guided learning is a problem for young children, " said Dr. Gillian McNamee.
A professor at the Erikson Institute, McNamee trains teachers, and she said she believes play begins to disappear when federally-mandated testing started. The testing begins in the third grade, and according to McNamee, adds a new kind of pressure to teachers. Teachers had to be sure kids could pass the test, and "children pick up the contagion of pressure that comes from parents, teachers, school districts."
McNamee said 20 or 30 years ago, no teacher would give kindergarteners formalized training in reading and math. It simply wasn't done until first grade. But now, she finds "even pre school teachers say I have to make sure they know the alphabet, that they can write their name."
So what do kids miss when they spend so little time on the playground or in the neighbor's yard?
For one thing, Bowman said kids aren't absorbing how fun it is to simply move their bodiesm a lesson that's crucial for the rest of their life. So in CPS schools, she said teachers try to encourage kindergarteners and first graders to "get up on their feet and move around a little bit and have a little physical exercise" every hour.
"Play relieves stress without question, phsyical activity relieves sress so making sure that children have enough of both is an important aspect of development, " Bowman said.
And then there are the social skills learned in play.
"Every dodgeball game, jumping rope, it's all verbal, it's negotiation, it's problem solving. So the playtime is really critical to helping children have laboratory settings day-to-day to really figure out, 'How do I make friends? How do I keep them?" Bowman explained
"It's terribly important that (children) have an opportunity to act out their own understanding of the world and to try out new ideas with a basis of creativity," she added.
Ultimately, of course, this is yet another juggling act for parents, who the experts said may not think much about the importance of play. They said early childhood researchers are clear about how significant it is to a child's development: though. And parents all know what it is. But in an age of jam packed to do lists, filled with scheduled events, it's a shift to mark out a chunk of time, and simply put "PLAYTIME" on the calendar.