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[The following post is sponsored by Playworld Systems.]
I really loved writing about the benefits of free play last month. Playworld Systems makes the kind of playground equipment that helps free play thrive, letting kids take risks and figuring things out for themselves. When they pointed me in the direction of this NPR piece on how free play actually changes kids’ brains, I jumped at the chance to write about it.
Play Actually Changes The Brain
A Canadian neuroscientist explained in the NPR piece that “the experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain…and without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.”
The neurons he’s talking about are in the part of the brain that regulates emotions, makes plans, and solves problems – pretty important stuff for navigating life. But what’s really interesting is how this affects academic performance.
In one study, students were measured for both social skills and academic performance in third grade, and then again in eighth grade. What researchers found was that social skills in third grade were a better predictor of later academic performance than past academic performance was!
And this makes sense, considering that academic performance tends to be higher in places where there is more recess in school, not less.
Play has long been known to have beneficial effects on children, and the key seems to be free play – play that has no external rules, only rules made up by the participants. Figuring these things out is how kids’ brains develop. Playing on sports teams doesn’t have the same effect.
From a researcher in Washington State: “The function of play is to build pro-social brains…that know how to interact with others in positive ways.” And the Canadian neuroscientist chimes in that it doesn’t matter if it’s roughhousing or peaceful play, it all has the same effect on the brain.
Meanwhile, In The United States…
There are so many obstacles to this kind of learning in the United States. Kids have less free play time now because of irrational parental fears, school days packed with test prep and structure, and other factors.
Let’s take my daughter’s public school as an example. Having spent a little time in my kids’ classrooms (as little as I could manage) I know that letting 30 kids loose in a small room doesn’t really work. They need to be outside. I once asked the principal why the kids hadn’t gone outside for recess one day, and she said it was too cold, and that there were a lot of students who don’t come to school dressed warmly enough to play outside.
Growing up in Buffalo, going to a school with kids from a very wide range of economic backgrounds, this just sounded wrong to me. We weren’t talking about a frigid day where quick frostbite was a factor, it was just a run-of-the-mill cold winter day. A mitten and hat collection could be taken up, I suggested. But then the conversation veered into the uncomfortable territory of charity and pride and socio-economic status and race and well, I dropped it. The bottom line was, all kids would remain inside because some didn’t have warm enough clothes and it would be too difficult and uncomfortable to address that problem.
Contrast this with “Forest Kindergardens” which started in Switzerland, and are popping up in the U.S. In these classrooms, the children aren’t actually in classrooms. They spend all day outdoors, in all weather, playing. They can do this because, according to this article, the Swiss don’t have any academic expectations from kindergarteners above writing their name and using scissors. And since the Swiss are ahead of us in Reading, Science, and Math, maybe we should pay attention.
The Problems With Recess
According to Boston University Psychologist Peter Gray, school may not be the ideal place to tackle this anyway, at least not based on how we do recess now. When I was in a Montessori elementary school back in the 70s and 80s, many different ages would go outside together for long periods of time, and there were no restrictions about classes or grades staying together; older kids played with younger kids.
But Gray points out that that just doesn’t happen much any more.
The ideal play situation is in the neighborhood, where age-mixed children learn from one another in an environment that Gray calls “nurturing.” Recess, however, is mostly in same-age groups, which can foster cliques, competition, and bullying. And then there’s the time issue: when students don’t get much of a break, they don’t have time to settle disputes before they head back to class. “They’ve cut recess in Boston to 15 minutes for elementary students,” Gray said. “What was happening is the kids would get outside, and they didn’t have time to settle any problems. They were still focused on the conflict, and it was a big deal to calm them down.”
With so many kids only getting 15 or 20 minutes of recess, they may not have time to reap the benefits.
What You Can Do
I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: Let them play.
I love my kids’ schools, and my kids are both thriving. But they get a lot of freedom outside of school. It is a long uphill slog to change the recess culture in American schools, so I think the solution really does lie at home.
Stand back (or even better, stay home, if your kids are in 4th-5th grade and should be at the playground without you), and let them play. They don’t need you on the playground with them. They don’t need you resolving conflicts for them. They don’t need you making rules and working things out for them. When you do these things you are quite literally keeping their brains from developing.
Thanks again to Playworld Systems for being supportive of kids’ brains through play!