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Are We Really Wasting Time When We Play?

Last month, I enjoyed hearing best-selling author Daniel Pink at our RoundTable for Principals in Atlanta. Dan shared some highlights from his newest book, “When,” which is all about the science behind the best ways to leverage our time.

Part of his session was about when we (and our kids) take time to play.

Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said, “Play is the work of children.” What a great reminder of the significance of the time we spend to recreate. But over the past two decades, schools have reduced the time they allow kids to play at recess. Even the American kindergarten experience has become much more academic—at the expense of play. Furthermore, we have removed more and more of this time in later grades, all the way through high school.

Play Time Is Not Just for Children

The truth is—we all need rest and exercise—and Americans do not get enough of them during our typical day. But we also need the experience of playtime. It actually grows our brains in new ways, regardless of our age.

“We need to bring more play back into the day,” says educator Sharon Davison. “Children experience authentic experiences with leadership, collaboration and deep problem solving through play.”

I believe this is true for all ages. Even me, at my age.

I have been working non-stop on several important projects for the last several months. In fact, our entire team has. So, when my sweet mother-in-law (who is 86 years old) mentioned how much fun it would be to have a day with her family at Disneyland, I had mixed emotions. I knew it would be fun, but I also knew how much I had on my plate at home. But, alas, my wife and I made the right decision and got some down time with family. I cannot tell you how refreshing it was. We walked outside (seven miles pushing wheelchairs), we rode rides, we ate comfort food, we talked, and we laughed a lot. I was an adult at play. And it helped my brain.

Sadly, while most would nod in agreement, this doesn’t translate for our kids.

The Research Says

The National Education Association reports, “Many classrooms are sacrificing the discovery and critical thinking skills that arise through play in favor of academics, researchers at the University of Virginia found, led by the education-policy researcher, Daphna Bassok. Between 1998 and 2010, they found (even) kindergarten classes across the country had become more focused on academics, with a particular focus on advanced literacy skills more typical of first grade classrooms.”

In fact, the number of teachers who believe kindergarten students should learn to read increased from 30 percent in 1998 to 80 percent in 2010, the study said.

While I agree, we should cultivate the intelligence of our students, we miss part of the recipe that makes this happen: play time. Time to recreate. Kids actually perform better in class when they get time away from academics.  In fact, too many people think that when students play they aren’t learning; that it’s mostly a distraction. This could not be further from the truth.

We’ve all marveled at the success that schools in Finland are having. One major reason, of course, is they include play. In fact, the first year of school is not at all about learning academics, but about learning to be social and responsible. Waiting a year fosters readiness on the part of students for academic learning.

Our One Homework Assignment

So, I have one homework assignment for you. Why not see play as part of the learning process—not as a distraction from learning? What if we sprinkled in each day time for relaxation, time for walking outside, time for chatting about unrelated school work and yes, even time for recreation and play, regardless of our student’s age?

Educator Sharon Davison summarizes it best: The choice is one of the most important ideas…because students choose what they are curious about and create play based on what they want to know,” she says. “Children experience authentic experiences with leadership, collaboration and deep problem solving through play. It is through their play they experience empathy, collaboration, and kindness. Leadership skills emerge and empathy grows.”


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Are We Really Wasting Time When We Play?