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The Importance of Play

Kids play tug-o-war

With so much focus on standardized testing and "missed" learning during the pandemic, we've neglected the importance of play in our lives.

With so much focus on standardized testing and "missed" learning during the pandemic, we've neglected the importance of play in our lives. Play has often been cut out of the school day, or it's been relegated to a tiny portion of school time. But play—which research shows is the only known activity humans engage in solely because it produces joy—is absolutely essential in schools.

Play can teach give-and-take, fairness, and empathy, notes psychiatrist Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play. It requires children to use critical thinking skills and problem-solving strategies, and it helps to increase resilience and adaptation to change. Play is just as important for younger children as it is for high school students. Here's why play is so important, as well as some suggestions to incorporate specific types of play into our classes.

The Importance of Play

Play helps students develop a variety of skill sets, which help them to optimize their development and manage toxic stress, notes a powerful study in the journal Pediatrics. Further, developmentally appropriate play "is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain."

Further reading: Balancing Extracurriculars and Passion with Homework in High School

Play helps kids form safe, stable, nurturing relationships. It teaches negotiation skills and enables children to think creatively and learn how to multitask. Some may see play as a waste of time better spent in subject-specific classes, but the truth is that play is absolutely necessary for both children and adults to manage stress and to continue to learn and develop.

Body and Movement Play

Students need to move around. Sitting at desks all day doesn't benefit the teacher or the student. Dr. Brown's research suggests movement "activates areas of the brain connected to learning, innovation, adaptability, and resilience."

The most rapid growth of the cerebellum occurs during movement, so creating activities in the classroom where students move around can ultimately help students learn. In Finland, where students have some of the highest test scores in the world, students take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. I've often created relay games to review material with students, which require them to get out of their desks and go to the front of the room and then back to their desks. Students easily learn the lessons, while having a raucously good time.

Scheduling brief walks around the school building—or outside the school building to get the added benefit of being outside and in nature—can help students and teachers in improving learning.

Object Play

I noticed the power of play when I gave my high school students a jigsaw puzzle to assemble. My students were engaged and excited. Dr. Brown notes there's pleasure in the physical and movement aspects of object play—for example, assembling a puzzle, kicking a ball, throwing objects into a wastebasket—because object play creates a brain better able to identify and solve system problems.

I've also noticed that when students work together on a puzzle, they share stories about themselves and build relationships. As a result, I often bring out puzzles in the beginning of the year, when I want students to get to know each other.

Social Play

Humans are social animals, and play helps students become socially competent. The study in Pediatrics reported that when students play together, they work to build trust and shape strong relationships. Creating teams in your classroom to activate prior knowledge, uncover new ideas, or review content can be powerful. It can help students form new social bonds, which is especially important now, after students spent so much time isolated during the pandemic. Finding opportunities for students to connect with one another during play can have long-lasting beneficial results for learning.

Storytelling and Narrative Play

I come from a long line of storytellers, and I discovered very early in life how enjoyable the sharing of stories can be. When a member of my family walked into our home and said, "I've got a story," all activity ceased, and everyone pulled up a chair to the kitchen table to listen and relish the experience.

Further reading: Teaching after Recess or Lunch: Challenge Accepted

Dr. Brown affirms storytelling as an important part of play, noting stories help us to understand the world both during and well after childhood. "Storytelling," he says, "can produce a sense of timelessness and pleasure, and an altered state of vicarious involvement." Allowing time for storytelling in your classroom can enable students to understand differing perspectives and become more empathetic, as well.

Play for Teachers

Play is not just for children. A teacher's workload already permeates their life at home, and our goal-driven society often negates the very notion of play as frivolous and wasteful. Nothing could be further from the truth. There's plenty of research that highlights the importance of play for adults.

In her book Joyful, Ingrid Fetell Lee writes, "Play helps us to release stress, to let go of everyday worry, and to be absorbed by the joy of the moment." For these reasons, teachers should schedule their own time outside of school for participating in a recreational sport, playing music, setting up a family game night, or dabbling in an artistic endeavor. Accessing that delight can produce joy and can help make our work lives that much easier.

It's essential that, as both teachers and human beings, we recognize the importance of play, in and out of school. Indulging in the energy and freedom that play provides can ensure teachers and their students live joyful lives, where they can cope with stress and effectively learn and grow.

 
Beyond the
classroom
 
Professional
development
 
Teaching
moments
 
Classroom
innovation