Play Schmay

It’s February break in my little corner of the world- at least for my kids and my husband- and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would have done as a kid if someone gave me a whole week off during the shortest (and yet, through some twist of the space-time continuum, longest) month of the year. In my midwestern- school experience, February break just wasn’t a thing that happened. If we were lucky, we got a long weekend at Easter. If it snowed too much, well, we didn’t. One would assume, then, that this break would be near nirvana for my kids- that they would be filled with plans to sled and play outside and maybe even bust out their scooters and bikes if the weather cooperated.

Yeah. Not so much. On Saturday and Sunday both, I took a page from my own parents’ book and told them both they had to go outside. Yes, I threw my kids out of the house, into the sunshine and fresh air. Go. Out. And. Play.

They were bumfuzzled by the whole idea. Play? What? Could I be a little more specific? (No. The concept isn’t that complicated.) Was I coming out to play with them? (No.) What should they play? (I don’t know, but you’re doing it outside.) I could feel my frustration turn to sheer sadness as I realized that my kids just didn’t know how to play in an unstructured environment. My husband finally took pity on them and made some suggestions. “Go explore between the two rows of pine trees. There’s space there to build a fort. Or go walk around the neighborhood and see if anyone else wants to play.” They managed a good 45 minutes out there, but they still came back in with a faintly confused air- sort of a “What was THAT all about?”

Apparently, they’re not alone. to the folks at The Alliance for Childhood, many kindergartners get about 30 minutes of recess each day- but they get 2-3 hours of instruction and testing. This means a lot of time sitting, listening, and being given structured tasks to complete. This also means a lot less time to figure things out for their themselves on the playground, to learn what American Academy of Pediatrics describes as how to be “free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game.’’ The right to play- and the time to learn how to play- should be a non-negotiable in school, but it’s not. More and more, schools are eliminating recess in their race to make Adequate Yearly Progress. I think it speaks volumes that, even in sources touting the importance of play, they use test-friendly language and tout the links between recess and student achievement (which is code for “higher test scores”).

In fact, the state of play has become so poor that there are now businesses cropping up, ready to teach our kids how to play. Playworks will happily provide coaches to:

transform recess and play into a positive experience that helps kids and teachers get the most out of every learning opportunity throughout the school day. These coaches become part of the school community, working full-time to provide organized play and physical activity through the five components of the Playworks program. They organize games and activities during recess, provide individual class game times and run a leadership development program during school hours.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the folks at Playworks. I imagine they do great work as do the folks at Play60, the NFL initiative to get kids to play for at least 60 minutes each day. It makes me sad, however, that we live in a country that needs them. For whatever reason, we’ve lost confidence in recess and we’ve lost confidence in our kids’ ability to “do” recess. When they’re young, we buy into the (false) belief that the world is an inherently unsafe place (check in with the folks at Free Range Kids if you want to learn more about that) and so we supervise and structure and protect them to the point that they don’t learn how to explore, the essence of free play. When they get older, we sacrifice their playtime (at a rate of 40%) at the altar of test prep and instruction- though the evidence actually shows that to be a counter-productive pedagogical choice.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my kids didn’t know what to do when I made them go out. One thing’s for sure, though, I’m going to keep sending them outside until they figure it out.


3 responses to “Play Schmay

  1. Totally share this! We throw our kids out a lot. Doing so with a ball helps. Having other kids around helps. Mostly, though, it’s the habit. At this time of year, when winter is just dragging on, they tend to lose the self-entertaining outdoors skills and every spring, when going out to play becomes no choice, they have a few days of confusion. Soon enough, though, it’s hard to get them back in. Can’t wait for spring!

    Lack of recess at many schools only reinforces the stay-in message, and it’s a lost opportunity to develop those free-range play skills. And for many kids who really do live in unsafe environments, a safe, clean outdoor recess space is essential, the only time during the day they might get to play outside. And the very kids who need that most tend to the be ones losing it due to short-sighted recess policies.

  2. In my PE days, i used to give a class certain tools-hula hoops, balls, pins, jump ropes, scooters and tell them to play or invent a game. Most would look at each other and me, go get something and play by themselves or do nothing but sit down. Free play is gone-how do I play baseball with only 6 players or just 9 players, we used to play work up where as outs were made, each player moved to a new position. I feel sorry for the young people today; adults have taken all the fun out of games.

  3. Reminds me of the work by Richard Louv on nature-deficit disorders that he writes of in “Last Child in the Woods”.

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