Blogger Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee

The Impact of Play During Library Programming

The number of services available to children and families in rural and frontier settings is less, or they choose to access fewer services, including library services. Although set in the past, Patricia MacLachlan’s “Prairie Days,” is current day reality for many families living in rural and frontier settings.

Aren’t articles that remind us why we choose to work in youth services rewarding?  While a simple search brings up a plethora of information on the impact of early childhood programs on educational attainment and quality of life, research that supports instructional approach and ties the approach to outcomes are compelling.

In the past few years a handful of studies arose that questioned the veracity of research related to early educational impact, postulating that the benefits fade by third grade and public investment is a waste. 

However, that’s not quite the whole picture.  It turns out the approach to teaching children in preschools, and other organizations that impact early development-such as libraries, is the deciding factor on whether a program is a good investment of time and resources.

This new era of research looks at the differences in instructional approaches in preschools and compares play-based learning to a more traditional academic approach.  Results indicate that play-based settings provide much greater benefits to young children throughout their lives.  Furthermore, academic-based settings not incorporating play-based learning can be detrimental to child development in a variety of ways.

Young children who experience structure from adults in an educational setting, such as worksheets and lecture-style direct instruction, have greater problems with mental health and behavioral problems by third grade and are more likely to drop out of school. This is unfortunately the predominant structure of preschools serving low-income and middle-income families.  Reasoning behind this choice maintains that underserved children from more culturally and economically diverse populations must “cram” experiences into learning opportunities in order to “catch up” to their more affluent peers, making up for perceived deficits.  Nevertheless, the studies supporting these suppositions, just as with Hart & Risley’s 30 million word gap, are being debunked.

Preschools and other learning environments which are less structured and based more on learning-through play have the greatest positive impacts for all children.  Additionally, play-based preschools tend to have a disproportionate number of affluent clientele.

What impact does this research have on library programming?  If the goal of story times and other programming for young children is to help build literacy skills and to model for families the most effective methods for building literacy, library staff must ensure programs provide opportunities for freedom of expression, exploration, imagination, and creativity.  In other words, worry more about setting the stage for FUN and PLAY and less about traditional teaching.

Recommended reading for play-based learning:


Kamenetz, Anya. (2022). A top researcher says it’s time to rethink our entire approach to preschool.

Myers, Mckenna.  (2021). 33 Reasons to Choose a Play-Based Preschool.

Pondiscio, Robert.  (2019). The making of an edu-myth: The 30-million-word gap has not been “debunked”.

Tammie Benham is a Youth Services Consultant for Southeast Kansas Library System.  She has served on several ALSC committees and is currently the Co-Chair for the Library Services to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee.

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