At the moment, if I told any five or six-year-old with whom I am acquainted that they could have extra playtime I have no doubt that they would get themselves to the nearest XBOX and “play” until their corneas morphed into right angles. So I have never examined “play” too closely as an activity and have never thought it could be a potential learning tool.
However, studies and experiments show that play is vital to a developing mind. Not Playstation-style-play, or anything relating to a glowing screen but the kind of outdoor play that was the norm two or three decades ago.
Unfortunately, schools are now under more pressure than ever to excel at core subjects, and while many are cutting down play time, a few elementary schools in Texas are going against the grain and adding extra recess to their curriculum. This is part of a project called Liink (Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids) Project, which is a researching the effects of added playtime.
Before we get into the benefits of adding playtime, let’s talk a bit about what happens when it’s taken away.
A 2011 article in the American Journal of Play describes how much lack of play time actually curbs emotional development.
“Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” Peter H. Gray Ph.D., a research professor and author of the study said in an interview.
The article also documented previous research:
“…Compared to 1981, children in 1997 spent less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18 percent more time at school, 145 percent more time doing school work, and 168 percent more time shopping with parents. The researchers found that, including computer play, children in 1997 spent only about eleven hours per week at play.”
In another article, Gray, who seems to be the expert on the topic, points to the steady rise of anxiety and depression in the last 70 years, with five-eight times more high school and college students meeting the criteria for major depression and anxiety than there were half a century ago and he is convinced that this is because young people feel that they don’t have authority over their lives:
“When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: “Something terrible can happen to me at any time, and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”
Gray goes on to say:
“By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact, we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.”
So from a psychologist’s point of view play is crucial. It’s also important to teachers. “I tell parents all the time that kids are not hardwired to sit still all day,” said Bryan McLain, the principal of Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas.
McLain’s school is one of six that has implemented the Liink Project, this year. His school has implemented four, 15-minute recess breaks throughout the day as part of the research project for his Kindergarten and 1st graders and 2nd graders will participate next year.
If you have ever watched a child belonging to that age group attempting to sit still, you will probably see extra recess breaks as a reasonable solution. However, across the rest of the country, it’s a touchy subject.
In 2005, most major public schools had recess with 55-66% offering it once a day, but experts believe that since high-stakes testing has increased and recess has been left behind. This year, a Florida mother asked that a 20-minute recess break is mandated by law. While the measure passed the state House, it has not received a hearing in the state Senate.
In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also weighed in on the importance of recess, highlighting that it should not be a substitute for physical education:
“Although recess and physical education both promote activity and a healthy lifestyle, it is only supervised but unstructured recess that offers children the opportunity to actually play creatively. In this sense, then, pediatricians’ support of recess is an extension of the AAP’s policy statement supporting free play as a fundamental component of a child’s normal growth and development.”
Debbie Rhea, who heads Liink, reaffirms these ideals and the types of recess breaks that are in the program have an emphasis on unstructured free play, meaning that the teacher does not set up rules or activities for children during that time.
“When they come back to the classroom, they’re much more focused, much more on point and ready to take in material,” said Rhea. “They do better on tests. They do better on everything when they have that.”
The teachers agree. “What we have found is that our instructional time has actually increased,” said McLain. “The time that might have been focused on redirecting students or reteaching because of misbehavior now we don’t have to do that because the kids are more focused.”
So the adage about all work and no play may be true, it looks like children and teachers are both benefiting from all of the fun.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of two. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.