Who Gets to Play?

My 2nd grader wants to do everything (Soccer! Gymnastics! 4H! Garden club! Karate! Running club! Contra dance!). The only reason an instrument isn’t on her list is because she wants to learn flute and she’s too young to start.

As someone with many interests too, part of me wants to enable her to pursue all of her passions, or as many of them as she can fit in a week. But then I spend a Sunday morning watching her play royal family with her sister or an afternoon watching her run around outside with her friends, and I’m much more worried that even though we have drawn a line, that we have given in to too many structured activities, when what she really needs is more time for free play.

I read a long powerful article from Aeon magazine recently on the importance of play. Play is how humans learn. Unstructured play is arguably the most important thing human children do—at young ages pretend play teaches them abstract thought. As they grow, play is how they learn to interact with others constructively, solve problems, deal with difficult emotions, and face their fears. Not to mention that physical activity is healthy and helps people with focus, alertness, and absorbing information. (See the research.)

The absence of play leads to the absence of what many people are calling “21st century skills”—creative problem solving, group work, taking the initiative.

Notice how test taking and lining up quietly were not on that list?

One of the startling things that came out in that Aeon article and others I’ve been reading recently is an assertion that contrary to popular opinion, American schools really should not been emulating those Asian countries who were are supposed to be terrified are beating us in test scores. It seems they are turning out good test takers who score poorly enough on measures of creativity—elaboration on a thought, creative problem solving, etc.—that they are desperately looking to other countries (including here) for different models to follow.

The creepy thing? Those creativity scores have also been falling in this country for a few decades, as excessive homework for younger ages, overscheduling, and helicopter parenting have been rising.

(When I hit a factoid like that, I have to admit that the ex-homeschooler in me has to go eavesdrop on my children’s wildly imaginative play to reassure myself I haven’t yet screwed up too badly.)

After all the misguided emphasis on “academics” to the exclusion of things like recess that has been sweeping American education, I’m excited to see that there are movements of parents starting to push back—parents in New Haven, Conn., and Rochester, NY, have won district-wide policies requiring access to recess for all students, every day, all year long. Parents are starting to refuse to accept withholding of recess as a punishment for … wait for it … restlessness in the classroom, or for that matter for not doing homework. Principals that have taken away recess to get more time on task are starting to put it back, realizing that taking away recess doesn’t support learning or good behavior, it hinders it.

There is a burgeoning and very energetic group here in Albany that is organizing around these same ideas. (Look up “Albany Parents for Physical Education and Play” on Facebook for more.)

One of the reasons I find this so important is that it’s so clear that free play time is yet another thing that is not distributed equally across socioeconomic groups. Poverty correlates with poor academic performance—not because there is any inherent difference in ability—but because, as so many people have pointed out, it’s damn hard to focus and learn when you are hungry, unstably housed, living with or witnessing violence regularly, growing up without access to books, etc.

Thanks to our emphasis on test scores, this means that it is invariably the schools in poor areas that are deemed “failing,” and subjected to “reforms” that among other things tend reduce children’s access to free play—cutting recess in favor of academics, lengthening school days and years, increasing homework, encouraging summer school and afterschool tutoring—and thereby merely reinforcing, rather than ameliorating, the existing educational disparities.

Recess and free play are not, of course, a magic bullet. And outside recess is a logistical challenge, especially in winter. There are many, many things that go into making a healthy, functioning school, and teachers and principals are already struggling with making those things happen within this climate of damaging education reform promulgated by non-educators. They need everyone’s support to figure out how to tip the balance toward what’s best for all kids.

But it can be done. We need to let our kids play. Their health, development, and even their test scores, depend on it.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Oct. 10, 2013.)

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