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Sean Wernert, University of Notre Dame

SeanWernert.jpgHow does lack of childhood play and the No Child Left Behind Act connect to college students?  Incoming first-year students have always been “taught to the test” and have experienced high-stakes standardized testing throughout their education. They have been taught ways to look for the right answer, remember and regurgitate facts, and pass the test. As play has been phased out, even at the preschool level (Stipek, 2006), the effects of lack of play could be showing up on college campuses and in our advising offices.      

Studies are showing that lack of childhood play can “disrupt normal social, emotional, cognitive development” (Wenner, 2009, p. 24). In free play, the child makes the rules, introducing an aspect of creativity missing in structured gaming like sports and board games (Pellegrini, Dupuis, & Smith, 2006).

Not only does play have an effect on social and emotional development, but cognitive development can be affected as well.  Play can make people smarter because in using imagination, children are able to try new things and learn from those experiences. The use of imaginative play allows kids to solve problems within the confines of their imagination (Wenner, 2009).  When they are confronted with challenging tasks in the future, they are better equipped to think outside the box and complete tasks that might be more challenging for people who cannot think as critically. 

While they have been taught that there is always a right answer, students may begin to see that the answer may not be as clear as they want it to be.  Free play allows younger children to relax and feel less anxious.  It also allows them to be more creative and adapt to new situations easily.  “The bottom line... is that play encourages flexibility and creativity that may, in the future, be advantageous in unexpected situations or new environments (Wenner, p. 29).   While parents and schools may be thinking that they are acting in the best interests of the child by giving them more direct instruction and phasing out free play, the trade-off is that the development of the child may be altered.  Research by Pellis and Pellis (2007) shows that lack of “rough-and-tumble” play can have an impact on the development of the social brain.   Pellegrini, Dupuis, and Smith (2006) point out that children use play as a way to sample and experience their surroundings which helps develop adaptive behaviors necessary later in life.

In particular, students entering college today are coming from school systems that are much more highly structured—often the result of high-stakes testing like that required by NCLB. This “may place a higher value on conformity” and on testing results rather than on developing students into problem solvers and critical thinkers (Bigger, 2005). 

Institutions have been adapting to the changing needs of students for a long time. Today’s students often feel more entitled than previous generations, and they have received more praise from parents, teachers, and other authority figures because of their testing performance (Howe & Strauss, 2003).   “Often... students find the pressures of their first year daunting.  This can lead to extreme stress, depression, and, in some cases, further student engagement in more risky behaviors (Bigger, 2005).  

To combat this, services and instruction will need to change and/or be supplemented and informed by theoretical approaches that can help students who have social, emotional, or cognitive issues be more successful.  Development of student self-authorship is key in a college education.  Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, and Renn (2010) point out that while colleges focus on developing a self-authored mind in the student, not all students are ready for that.  Children who experienced less play at young ages and have systematically been taught to the test throughout their educational careers may be even less ready.

Schlossberg’s (1981) transition theory can be useful in helping students make this jump from learning for the test to learning for self-authorship and needing to think critically about problems that may not have answers.   Going to college is a major transition in the life of a student and realizing that just passing the test like in high school may not be enough to succeed can make that transition more challenging.

Astin’s student involvement theory (1999) speaks to students becoming more involved and attached to their college experience. If students who did not experience play at young ages become more involved in college (or play in college), their social, emotional, and cognitive maladjustment may begin to be mitigated as those developments take hold in college.  The key will be for advisors, faculty, and staff to recognize students in distress and approach them accordingly to provide the best support possible.

It will be helpful for advisors to be prepared to assist students further.  “College personnel must realize that students need support from peers, faculty, staff, and family if they are to succeed.  Support networks must be in place so freshman can begin to make the important connections that will help them cope” (Bigger, 2005).

While on the surface it can seem to be a stretch to discuss the effects of not having enough free play in preschool on incoming college students, the long-term effects are real.  Fortunately, colleges and universities can be prepared by guiding their practice with already well-established theoretical frameworks to better assist students in the transition.  

Sean Wernert
Faculty Academic Advisor
University of Notre Dame
First Year of Studies
[email protected]


Astin, A. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education.  Journal of College Student Development 40(5), 518-529.

Bigger, J. J. (2005).  Improving the odds for freshman success.  Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Web site: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Advising-first-year-students.aspx  

Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010).  Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass.

Howe, N. & Strauss, W., (2003).  Millennials go to College. Great Falls, VA: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Life Course Associates.

Pellegrini, A. D., Dupuis, D., & Smith, P. K., (2006).  Play in evolution and development.  Developmental Review 27, 261-276.

Pellis, S. M. & Pellis, V. C., (2007). Rough-and-tumble play and the development of the social brain.  Current Directions in Psychological Science 16(2), 95-98.

Scholssberg, N.K. (1981). A model for analyzing human adaptation to transition. The Counseling Psychologist 9(2), 2-18.

Stipek, D., (2006).  No child left behind comes to preschool.  The Elementary School Journal 106(5), 455-465. 

Wenner, M. (2009).  The serious need for play.  Scientific American Mind (February/March 2009), 22-29. 


Cite this article using APA style as: Wernert, S. (2013, September). No child left behind comes to College: The implications of limiting early age play on iIncoming college students. Academic Advising Today, 36(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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