Boston - Playtime just doesn't get enough respect.
That's the message from academics and educators who gathered here last week to defend the value of children's play and to argue that play should be studied and taught in schools of education.
"Play gets overlooked," said Edgar Klugman, a professor of education at Boston's Wheelock College, sponsor of the weeklong symposium. "Society doesn't value it."
Often seen sitting cross-legged in circles on the floor, the experts who gathered at Wheelock just couldn't say enough about the benefits of play for young children.
For starters, they said, it's fun. But equally important, play makes kids smarter.
"You see its benefits particularly in terms of later development -- especially when we look at creativity, flexibility and the ability to cooperate," said Millie Almy, a retired professor of education from the University of California, Berkeley.
In addition, said Mr. Klugman, "kids who have had a great deal of play are more able to function socially, emotionally and physically" as they move forward in school and in life.
But such benefits are difficult to quantify, and Ms. Almy and her colleagues worry that early childhood education is increasingly oriented toward test-taking. Parents who say they want smart kids should understand that rolling around in the dirt is just as important as scoring well on standardized testing, they say.
The emphasis on academics starts early. Experts warn that day-care programs for 2- and 3-year-olds often market themselves as "learning centers," and that basic activities, such as finger painting, that were once known as play are often described to children and parents as "work."
"It may be exactly the same activity," said Doris Pronin Fromberg of New York's Hofstra University, "but if the children self-select it, it's known as play. If the teacher suggests it, they regard it as work."
A "back-to-basics" emphasis in early childhood education is one of the factors endangering play, according to a paper presented Mr. Klugman and Lyn Fasoli, an education professor at Australia's Northern Territory University. Even among preschoolers, "abstract, pencil and paper tasks" are emphasized, consigning play to an activity suitable only for "down times."
And the bias against play goes beyond the classroom, Ms. Fasoli said. "Play is under threat not only in schools, but in society at large," she maintained. "You see it from the earliest stages, when parents relegate play to the act of hanging a mobile over their infant's crib."
What's more, the dim view of play is reflected in its absence as a legitimate field of study in most education schools. Said Mr. Klugman: "It has such low status in society that . . . it has no status in college curricula."
Others bemoaned the absence of credibility afforded to their field. "I'm very tired of being laughed at socially because the subject I work with is play," said Kimberly Blake, an environmental psychologist from the City University of New York.
"For years we've been actively fighting to get play into the schools," she said, "but play is non-valued in our society."
Those who attended the conference took time out for some play of their own. Trails of crepe paper snaked around the halls and up and down the stairs, ending at the rest rooms. Squiggly-swirly artworks that looked as if they had been created by 5-year-olds, but were in fact the "oeuvres" of people 30 to 50 years older, hung in the corridors.
Still, despite the cries for the inclusion of playtime in education curricula, most people at the conference found it difficult to agree on what play is.
Said Ms. Fromberg: "Play is like love. We all may think we know what it feels like, but can you tell me just what love is?"
As a consequence, great amounts of verbal energy were devoted to such subtleties as the difference between "dramatic play" and "socio-dramatic play."
Translation: Dramatic play is what kids do when they are alone. Socio-dramatic play is what happens when two or more children get together.
In the search for a viable definition, some educators came close to drowning in their own metaphors. "Play is a boat that allows you to float on a sea of ambiguity," said one conference participant.
Mr. Klugman said the multidisciplinary nature of play makes it difficult to box play into any single definition.
"You go out there and talk to the anthropologists, the sociologists, the psychologists, the environmentalists and the biologists, and you begin to get disagreements," he said. "You get nuances that are confusing to everyone," especially to parents and teachers. Yet parents do manage "to cling to the probably intuitive notion that something important happens when children play," Ms. Almy said.
Educators too, she said.
"That's part of what we've been doing here," she said and smiled. "Playing around."
What's needed, said Ms. Fromberg, is a kind of Bill of Rights for children's play; "an executive summary to hand to parents and policy-makers," so that champions of play will "not be susceptible to political correctness" and interpretive strictures that may backfire against them.