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We tend to view recess as a break from learning. However, free play is actually a vital part of the learning process. Play boosts divergent thinking, flexible thinking, and creativity. It helps students learn critical social-emotional skills. Unfortunately, in many schools, students are losing recess in an effort to move “back to basics.” However, this well-intentioned trend is short-sighted and misses the critical role of play in student learning.

The Critical Role of Play

Play is a natural part of childhood. It’s how children explore new ideas and make sense of their world. Watch any toddler and you’ll notice curiosity, problem-solving and imagination at work non-stop. But what happens when play disappears?

For the last few decades, I’ve watched the school system in the U.S. shift more focus to test scores and many schools have cut down on recess to focus more time on the core subjects. However, recess should not be viewed as a break from learning. Instead, it’s a vital part of the learning process.

When children have the chance to play, they engage in social-emotional learning, including teamwork and conflict resolution. They become better communicators. This period of rest and play has cognitive benefits. It actually solidifies connections between ideas and increases divergent thinking. Often, play functions as a spark for creativity. Imaginative play inspires curiosity which leads to experimentation which drives creative thinking.

But play has classroom benefits as well. It reduces off-task disruptions and increases academic achievement.

On the surface, play isn’t serious. It’s fun. It’s goofy. But it’s also the foundation for life-long learning and creative thinking.

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What Teachers Can Do About It

So, what can we do about it? The problem can seem overwhelming and the system can feel too hard to transform. However, as educators, there are practical steps we can take to increase the amount of time students have to play.

  1. Incorporate play-based brain breaks in our classrooms. This is a simple idea that many teachers are already doing. During transition times, students will do play-based brain breaks that incorporate movement and problem-solving.
  2. Integrate game-based learning and simulations. Play-oriented games can be a great option for teaching ideas and concepts. We used to do a Communist, socialist, and capitalist version of Monopoly. We also used a Risk-like game to teach the alliance system and imperialism that led to World War I. Other times, you might go with a more empathy-driven, character-oriented game.
  3. Pilot hands-on maker projects. I used to do a Maker Monday, where students would do a hands-on maker challenge. It might be a design challenge or a divergent thinking challenge. But the goal was to get kids to use their creativity in a low-risk, playful way.
  4. Increase student choice. While we can’t always increase recess or free play time, we can incorporate the student agency and freedom associated with recess by increasing student choice. When we do a Wonder Day project, students get to chase their curiosity and answer their own questions. For a more extensive project, you can do a Genius Hour or 20% Time. The best part? We can launch these projects while still teaching the standards.
  5. Cultivate a culture of joy. While this cannot necessarily replace recess or play, we can create inside jokes for our classrooms. We can laugh more and use humor as we teach. In fact, when we use humor, we can actually boost divergent thinking and problem-solving as well.
  6. Avoid taking away recess. I’ve worked in schools where students had “recess timeout” for misbehavior, which led to more discipline issues. Other times, it was a well-intentioned “intervention time,” where students worked on math or reading rather than getting a chance to play. Often, they were taken out of PE for intervention (and I understand that PE is not the same as play or recess, though it is a chance for students to move around and expend energy).
  7. Advocate for recess. Ultimately, we need to advocate for increased recess time and value it just as much as we value math and reading and writing. We need to educate parents and community members, work with administrators, and talk to policymakers to help change the structures so that we have more recess time.


Play Is a Life-Long Skill

For the last few years, I have met creative types from all walks of life. As I’ve talked with engineers, artists, architects, and musicians, they have described a critical part of their process: play. It’s not just in the arts, either. I have an accountant friend who loves “playing with numbers.” I know of entrepreneurs who describe the loose, flexible role of play in their strategic thinking and systems building.

Culturally, we tend to think of play as something people grow out of. But the spark of imagination and the joy of experimentation are at the heart of most creative work. In other words, if you want to engage in serious creative work, you need to be willing to play around with ideas and materials. This is why we need to retain this idea of play, not just at the lower grades, but at all grades. It might look different with juniors in high school than it does with kindergartners. But even then, it is the same joy and wonder that leads to deeper creative thinking.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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