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More free playtime benefits young children’s psychosocial development

28 June 2012

Children in the reception classes of primary school should be given more uninterrupted playtime, without adults setting goals for them. Louise Berkhout reached this conclusion in research for which she will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 4 July. She explored the link between play and the psychosocial health of young children (four to six years old). ‘My advice would be to let children play freely for a few hours a day. Nowadays, maths and language have become focal points in reception classes in primary schools, and I have noticed a decline in knowledge about the importance of playing. Imaginary play allows children to practise their social skills and deal with life-events in a positive way,’ says Berkhout.

Berkhout interviewed 52 teachers at 20 schools about play and psychosocial development. Typical characteristics of play are: it is happy and fun, it involves no set goals, is spontaneous, the participants make their own ‘rules’, it is not literal (can involve pretending), it has its own reality, it has no external rules and children become actively involved. Teachers consider it important for children’s psychosocial development that they learn to be ‘themselves’ in a group, develop communication skills and social cognition, and learn from experience. They see play and its contribution to the psychosocial development of young children as an integrated process.

Playing in class

Berkhout analyzed free play among 877 children between the ages of 4 and 6, in 47 classes at 20 schools. She noted more active (motor) and imaginary play when children were in classes of fewer than 16 children than in classes of more than 21 children. The larger classes played more short artistic and organized games sitting at tables. The classes were heterogeneous, with children from 4 to 6 years old in the same class. According to Berkhout, this can contribute to variation in play. She approached 87 schools for her research, but only 20 agreed to take part. ‘The schools that took part appreciate the importance of playing. It is also important to study how children practise emotional, social and cognitive skills in a natural way at other schools, where playing is less of a priority,’ states Berkhout.

Playing at home

Berkhout studied the link between playing at home and the psychosocial health of 4-year-olds by means of a questionnaire designed for the parents. The information she obtained showed that boys were keener on active and constructional games, while girls preferred imaginary play and creative activities. No psychosocial problems were reported for 95% of the girls and 97% of the boys. Girls with a deviant (or sub-deviant) score for attention-span problems tended to play less with their peers, and the quality of their games was inferior to that of girls with normal scores. An unexpected result was that boys with a deviant (or sub-deviant) score for the total range of problems played more with other boys than boys with a normal score. Berkhout thinks that this may be because active play and constructional games require less verbal interaction than imaginary play, for example.


According to Berkhout, the fact that boys are more likely to choose active games than girls raises an important question. ‘Given that boys prefer active games, are their needs being met sufficiently at school and at home? They need a lot of room for physical games, both in and out of doors, and a tolerant attitude from adults regarding the noise and activity levels. Current debate about boys’ behaviour often revolves around boys being made to comply with female norms, such as a preference for verbal interaction,’ claims Berkhout. The Netherlands recently launched a campaign to tackle the shortage of primary school teachers. Men are also being recruited. ‘Men’s reasons for wanting to work in primary education are to promote physical play among boys and to provide a male role model. In view of the differences in play between boys and girls, this would seem to be a good development,’ says Berkhout.

Curriculum Vitae

Louise Berkhout (Amsterdam, 1952) studied orthopedagogy at the University of Amsterdam. She conducted her research in the Speech and Language Pathology Department of the ENT Department of University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), as part of research into the increasing ‘schoolishness’ of childhood. The research was funded by the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences [HBO Raad] and a grant from the Iona Stichting in Amsterdam. Berkhout teaches psychology and psychopathology at Leiden University of Applied Sciences within the Care cluster. Her thesis is entitled ‘Play and psychosocial health of boys and girls aged four to six.’

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.52 a.m.
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