“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
The foundation for learning in my last school was based on a hands-on, play-based approach where children had open ended time to explore. There were adult guided explorations and a flexible daily schedule. Children engaged in extended periods of play that was uninterrupted by an adult. During those years I noticed that children’s ability to engage in unstructured play, compared to their same aged peers, often related to the age they enrolled.
Children who started as toddlers and twos explored working with various materials, developed imaginative games, and learned to keep ‘busy’ on a playground in our program. By the time they were three and four they were experts at these skills with little support needed. These children were well versed in conflict resolution, negotiation, and the self-regulation needed to navigate a classroom or playground full of children.
These extended periods of play were not always the case when newly arriving four year olds, without prior play-based experience, that spent the day saying that there was nothing to play with and they were bored. I was flummoxed. Our school was full of beautiful, interesting open-ended materials both inside and out. The teachers thoughtfully choose materials that were engaging and allowed for creativity and innovation. How could these preschoolers be bored? Upon inquiring further, the children would ask questions about what things were, how do you use them and what are the rules? I realized their experiences were with closed ended materials (one use) and in adult led settings which gave them no foundation in child-led play.
We supported those children as they practiced these different skills but there was a bigger problem. How do we keep children from getting to the age of four and not knowing how to play for extended periods of time without the intervention of an adult? The bigger question was how do we look beyond our school into the broader community in supporting children as they learn to play. How do we become advocates for play in the early years and beyond?
I felt validated by Dr. Peter Gray and his powerful TEDx talk that discusses the decline of play. He describes a trend seen over the last 50-60 years where children’s freedom to play has been taken away. In the 50’s the school year was 5 weeks shorter and children spent up to 2 hours a day outside. Homework was unheard of for elementary students and much less work for high school students than in today’s world.
What caused the decline of play? Dr. Gray describes the spread of a schoolish view of child development with a belief that children learn best from adults. Children’s own self-directed play with their peers has no value in our current society. He shares that childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume building.
Over the decades of declining play researchers have documented an increase in a range of disorders including anxiety and depression. This lack of play has also led to a decline in internal locus and control, decline in creative thinking, decline in empathy, and a rise in narcissism.
If you do not have time to watch Dr. Gray’s 16-minute TEDx talk this is the message I want you to remember and use as you advocate for a world filled with play:
“Everything we know about play tells us there are the effects if children are deprived of play. They are analogous to what happens when animals are deprived of play. Play is where children learn they are in control of their own life and it’s really the only place they are in control of their own life. When we take away play then we don’t give them the chance to learn to take control of their own life. Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn therefore that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and that the world is not so depressing after all. Play is where they learn to get along with peers and see from others points of view and practice empathy and get over narcissism. Play is by definition creative and innovative. Of course, if you take away play all of these things go down.” The Decline of Play by Dr. Peter Gray.
As early childhood educators we know that benefits of unstructured play are innumerable. Why is the battle cry still about more school, more structure, and more scheduled events for children all which are adult directed? What can we do? How do we start reversing some of the harm done to children who lack play and social skills?
What would happen if we all press pause and participate in a Global School Play Day?
Following watching Dr. Gray’s TEDx talk Eric Saibel, Scott Bedley, and Tim Bedley responded to the plea for more play by launching a Global School Play Day alongside a group of other educators. I ran across Saibel, S. Bedley, and T. Bedley talking about Global School Play Day on The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast with Jennifer Gonzalez. The movement is in its 5th year and the team that launched the grassroots effort hopes that it inspires more schools to increase unstructured play in their schedule.
This is a day to celebrate unstructured play. Saibel, S. Bedley, and T. Beley say it may seem like a waste of time, but they are challenging teachers and administrators to understand the importance of unstructured play. Children are busy doing lots of things such as music lessons, playing sports, playing on their devices, going to church which are wonderful experiences however they are all scripted out for children. The challenge is to find out what happens when children spend a whole day playing and teachers spend the day connecting.
Now it’s your turn to get involved. Be a participant, not a bystander in this fight for the right to play! Schedule a school play day this February 6th! Be a part of this years Global School Play Day and provide your students an opportunity to have an unstructured day of play. To help raise awareness of the benefits of play and to show your support sign up on the websites showing your participation (or moral support if you do not have a classroom). #GSPD2019
Sign up to participate at Global School Play Day
February 6th, 2019
The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast with Jennifer Gonzalez
TEDx Talk with Dr. Peter Gray