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Yes, Play is Crucial!


Children's Flying Creations
Children’s Flying Creations

When did you last play? How about your employees or your students? As Linda Stone pointed out in her blog A More Resilient Species, self-directed play (experiential, voluntary and guided by one’s curiosity) is essential for developing resilience, independence and resourcefulness, let alone creativity. She quotes scholar Brian Sutton-Smith, “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.”

This kind of play can’t be guided by adults—adult-directed soccer or chess club or playground games have their place, but they don’t build the same skills as exploring your own interests, or negotiating with other children as you form your own club or develop your own game or turn a tree house into a castle.

And this kind of play does not happen at the expense of time spent on academics. In fact, researchers are finding that creative play is essential to the kinds of learners we are aiming to create: scientists, innovators, inventors, creative problem-solvers, great writers, and more. Check what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has to say about the essential nature of play.

And, the AAP also makes clear that students from lower-income families have fewer opportunities. They often attend schools where the curriculum has been narrowed to tested subjects, they may live in neighborhoods where parents are reluctant to send them out to play, and their parents may have little energy left for engaging in free play after working more than one job to make ends meet.

In fact, I’ll never forget one morning when we had to teach urban 8th graders to play. We’d combined two classes because a teacher had come down with a sudden case of the flu. With nearly 70 students in a room, formal instruction seemed out of the question (long story—honest, it wasn’t possible to teach math that hour!!!). These students couldn’t figure out how to entertain themselves, other than by exchanging insults and wishing for their video games. So we taught simple paper-and-pencil games such as Dots and Boxes, team monster drawing (imagine adding a body to a head you haven’t seen…), tag team stories, and other non-tech past times. The result? Students saying, “Man, we need to learn how to do more of this!!” Yep, they need to discover that they are interesting beings all by themselves, with great ideas and engaging interests!

If we really want innovators, we need to acknowledge the truth that Nobel Laureates report many childhood hours spent in play and, according to Linda Stone, claim their lab activities are similar!!

So what do we do?

  • Stop classifying physical education, the arts, recess, and student self-directed learning as “nonacademic.” They are all aspects of essential college/career ready schooling
  • Help children learn to play. Many are so used to being programmed that they don’t know how to use their own imaginations or negotiate rules with peers
  • Find time for children to develop their own interests. My sixth grade teacher even encouraged students to suggest activities for the whole class to try, such as writing plays and building a parade float.
  • Model playing. Parents and teachers can make up stories, show their artwork, design board games, display a project they’re working on, keep a stack of books handy on a topic that intrigues them—and head outside to invent a new game with a couple of balls and a wastebasket or a tree or ???
  • Hand that study from the AAP to anyone who objects to children spending time at play!!!

What other ideas do you have? How can you incorporate play into learning?

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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