Much research has been done about the importance of play. It’s something we know as educators, yet it’s the first thing to come off the schedule when there is too much to do. From social interaction to creativity to simply having fun and forgetting about the stresses of the world, children and adults need time to play.

Play is extremely important for students to develop their executive functions. Executive functions are following directions, controlling impulses, focus, patience, paying attention, taking turns, and perseverance. Therefore, if we truly want students to succeed in school, and in their lives, we need to support the development of these skills. One of the easiest ways to help people of all ages improve their executive functions is through unstructured free play. There are countless studies that show the benefits of play in people as well as animals and even robots.

Listen to this NPR podcast as several researchers discuss the benefits of play in both animals and humans.

While most adults have generally already developed their executive functions, according to there are several benefits related to play in adults.

How can schools and teachers use this information to benefits their students? Many schools are adopting a more play-based approach in their Early Childhood programs so young students can learn through play. But if the benefits of play at all ages are known, why aren’t there play-based primary or secondary programs? In the US and elsewhere, many schools have reduced the amount of playtime given to students, all in the name of test prep. This can only hurt the students in the long run. It has gotten so restrictive that some states have even passed laws requiring a minimum amount of recess per day. There is also an increased level of students being diagnosed with ADHD and complaints about fidgeting students. If we keep kids inside all day what do we expect to happen?  In my opinion, all the excitement and “innovation” of classrooms with yoga balls and other balance seating are simply treating the symptoms of too much confinement, not the real problem of students sitting in uncomfortable chairs indoors for too long. The development of the vestibular system in children is important to help students control their bodies and sit when they are required to do so. But to develop the system, children need to spin, flip upside down, and roll down hills.

Without fail we have all had students who never seem to be able to keep track of their materials or assignments. Quite frequently when you watch the same students at break time, they are not playing. They are either walking around or just sitting and watching. I am not a researcher, but I think there is a strong connection. Some of my students have their faces pressed against the door at 8:10, the time they are allowed to come into the classroom, instead of playing or socializing until 8:30, which is when class begins. I always tell these students to run around before the day begins to activate their brains and burn some energy, but they think I’m weird. How would these students benefit from that extra unstructured time?

My goal is to continue to integrate time into the teaching day for students to take cognitive breaks and move their bodies. This happens through brain breaks, taking learning outdoors, giving opportunities for students to explore their creativity, and providing a flexible learning space within the classroom. I intentionally provide various seating options and workspaces for the students to use and encourage students to find a place where they can work most comfortably, even if that means working outside in the shared space. I do this because I want the students to truly engage with their work and not be distracted by constantly trying to be comfortable. As for executive functions, I make explicit the self-management skills that I expect them to develop, scaffold the expectations through modeling and visual support, and gradually release responsibility over to them. I’ve also been wondering –  can trends like gamification of classroom and MakerEd fill this “play” gap in education?


Image Source: Brian Kasper