The Importance of Play

By Jenn Elkin

Join us for a special evening Open House on Tuesday, May 2, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. to learn more about Kindergarten at The Pike School. We’ll discuss life as a kindergartner at Pike and provide a campus tour. RSVP at pikeschool.org/spring.

Recently, a second grader told me, “Thursdays are my favorite day!”  When I asked her what happened on Thursdays that made it so special, anticipating that a certain in-school subject or out-of-school activity landed on that day, she told me, “It’s my day off!”  I asked her what that meant, and she responded, “It’s my only free day after school that isn’t scheduled.”  Though she often shared with excitement how her swimming lessons were going or what progress she was making in her after-school language classes, it was clear she was equally thrilled with the idea that Thursday’s after-school time was her own, available for exactly what she chose to do with it.

I asked a range of Lower School students what their favorite part of the school day was, and as you might imagine some said, “Recess!” and others “Choice time!” PE and lunch also landed near the top of the list, and for some our new before-school playground time was mentioned. Though, I must admit my stomach twisted a bit at the lack of “academic” subjects named as favorites, I also know how logical and natural these responses were.

It’s not that students don’t enjoy the academic side of the school day—trust me, I see them everyday happily engaged, discussing books, ogling the class pet, peering through hand lenses, or singing and drawing in music and art classes. Our academic program is strong, teaching children new concepts and challenging students to think beyond what they are taught to apply their learning in novel ways. However, equally important to developing their cognitive abilities is the “hard work” students do during the non-academic times, like recess, lunch and choice time (or “work time” as the Kindergartners call it).  These times allow for free expression and use of imagination among friends, child-to-child discussions of kid-centered topics, exploration of humor through storytelling, joke telling and word play, and development of problem-solving skills through their experience with following and breaking rules as well as taking turns or sharing materials.

In a more hurried world where the pressure to excel in all areas is great and students are expected to “find their passions” at an early age, down time and play time are crucial. We fight to keep this time sacred in Lower School, where even we feel the push to increase expectations and defend the rigor of our program. The irony is that research shows how important play is to the growth and development of young children; it has proven to be just as important as learning to read, add or subtract.

On the NAEYC website, in “Ten Things Every Parent Should know about Play,” Laurel Bongiorno writes, “Don’t underestimate the value of play. Children learn and develop: cognitive skills, physical abilities, new vocabulary, social skills and literacy skills.” Stated another way, as on the Alex Toys website, free play benefits children because it:

  1. Builds creativity and ability to come up with unique ideas.
  2. Develops motor planning skills, helping the child to create and carry out ideas, motor actions, and activities.
  3. Fosters decision-making skills.  Unstructured play provides many opportunities to make choices while playing alone or while playing in a group.
  4. Fosters independence.  Helps children learn to think independently and teaches them how to entertain themselves.
  5. Develops social skills and collaborative play skills.  Free play allows children to develop conflict resolution skills and learn to take turns.  It also helps children develop their skills as leaders and as followers.
  6. Provides opportunities for children to discover their interests and skills!

As Bruno Bettelheim says in The Importance of Play, “From a child’s play we can gain understanding of how he sees and construes the world—what he would like it to be, what his concerns and problems are. Through his play he expresses what he would be hard pressed to put into words. A child does not play spontaneously only to while away the time, although he and the adults observing him may think he does. Even when he engages in play partly to fill empty moments, what he chooses to play at is motivated by inner processes, desires, problems, anxieties.”

We all know, as well-educated adults and parents who were once children (remember?) that having time to play, enjoy the outdoors, interact with siblings and friends, and get bored at times help our children develop in healthy and important ways. The skills children learn through play are the underpinnings to their approaches to these same situations as adults. However, as the young lady in my first example explained, free play and unscheduled time are quickly diminishing for even our youngest learners. It is very common that, after a full day of intense work and play at Pike, many students leave to attend after-school activities several days each week. And, though enrichment activities provide their own wonderful opportunities for students to become well-rounded individuals, they often add more “work” to a child’s day in the form of practice time or homework, and they take the place of unscheduled down-time in which children are the directors and determiners of their play.

Bettelheim sums it up beautifully: “The way a child wants to play is often very different from the way his parents want him to. The child, however, knows best.”  Let’s work together to help our children find the perfect balance between work and play.

The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit pikeschool.org to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership. To learn more about admission to The Pike School, visit our Admission page

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