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The Importance of Play
Jonathan T. Jefferson
“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” - Charles E. Schaefer
It was the summer of 1982. My new Evel Knievel styled red, white, and blue bicycle survived the journey from Queens to Macomb, New York. I was as anxious as any 12-year-old would have been to get their bike down from the roof of Dad’s brown Ford station wagon. Taking a spin on the rolling hills of the rural farming community my family called home for so many summers was all I could think about since the scent of spring first tickled my nose.
My 16-year-old cousin Derek and I constructed a ramp from the door of a crumbling wooden out-building. We stacked stones underneath one end until the ramp’s angle was steep enough to allow my bike to jump clear over the ten-foot wide swampy area in front of our home. I conducted a few practice runs from the road, down the dirt driveway, and onto the wooden ramp. Gauging the speed necessary to propel myself from the ramp onto the high grass on the opposite side of the swamp, occupied my thoughts for days leading up to the main event.
Today, I still wear the scars from a practice jump that canceled the main event. Now, as an educator, I can see clearly how the unadulterated creative play of my childhood ingrained in me a true understanding of mathematical and scientific principles that were taught in school during the years that followed. Conceptualizing the relationships between angles, height, speed, and distance was not difficult due to my real-life experiential practices.
Recently, I viewed a Tedx Talks presentation titled The Decline of Play given by Boston College Research Professor, Dr. Peter Gray. Dr. Gray shared the results of the dramatic decline in play in developed countries over the past 60 years. Results such as the following in children, adolescents, and young adults: increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide, and narcissism.
There are times when I assume something to be true, but I lack empirical evidence to prove it. Dr. Gray’s presentation motivated me to delve deeper into the topic of play. Are my beliefs that I learned to navigate challenges inherent in social interactions better owing to play? Did older children model for me how to teach by being patient and responsible educators during challenging new games? Was the sometimes cruel banter between peers, wins, and loses all experiences that prepared me for adulthood? My gut response to these questions is yes, but what else does the research say?
“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” - Froebel
“Chronic play deprivation may have the effect of gradually dehumanizing the children it affects, with a consequent loss of their ability to care, to emphasize and exercise compassion, or share the same reality as other children. The available evidence suggests that play deprived children become disturbed, aggressive and violent adults” (Hughes, 2003). Maybe I can thank play for the fact that I have never been arrested, and tend toward empathy over violence.
Parents reading this may be thinking that their child is not play deprived because they receive physical education in school, belong to a sports team, or attend play dates arranged by adults. These activities may be beneficial at helping children to remain physically fit, stave off obesity and diabetes, and possibly help control tendencies toward hyperactivity; however, it is free play that researchers are finding most apt to benefit the whole child. “…free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself. Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play” (Gray, 2011).
According to Gray (2011), “Play functions as the major means by which children
develop intrinsic interests and competencies;
learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;
learn to regulate their emotions;
make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and
Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.” What teacher would not want to receive children with the aforementioned strengths? How much better would children perform academically if curriculum were scheduled around the premise that play comes first?
“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” - William Saroyan
Skeptics may doubt the prudence of scheduling schoolwork around play; after all, to compete in a global society the products of our schools must be intellectually strong. When referring to a commonly accepted international barometer, the PISA survey, one nation that places a high value on play does exceptionally well. The survey compares 15-year-olds from around the world in reading, math, and science. It is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years. Since 2000, Finland has consistently scored among the top countries in all three areas; joining the consistently high performing countries of South Korea and Singapore. “Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play” (Partanen, 2011). Finland also places a high value on equality. Regardless of socioeconomic standing, gender, and/or citizenship status, all students receive the same quality education.
Vanderschuren (2010) concluded “that the pleasure of play has the ability to reinforce learning activities…” I can not tell you how many times my 12-year-old mind went over the projected speed needed to jump the swamp on my bike. It was mid-summer. No homework had been assigned, and no adults were involved in my plans. I did not think of it as a learning activity. It was fun; pure, unadulterated, fun. “Play provides opportunities for children to learn, as they discover, create, improvise and imagine. Children’s immersion in their play illustrates how play enables them to simply enjoy being” (EYLF, p.15 quoted in Educators guide p.32).
Imagine an urban street filled with children of all ages. A street similar to the one I grew up on in Queens, New York. My seven siblings were spread over 19 years. Friends in my peer group had older and/or younger brothers and sisters in the peer groups of my siblings. Often age-mixed play would ensue whether in backyards, playgrounds, or living rooms.
One of my favorite neighborhood games was called Catch One Catch All. The older children set the parameters; no entering the alleyway, stay out of Mrs. Dickson’s garage, and the cross streets (avenues) were off-limits. Many of these limits were the same limits set by our parents for the youngest among us. The object of the game was for one person to begin as “It” while the others found hiding places up and down the block; under cars, behind bushes, in trees, and on rooftops. It would count to some specified number with their eyes closed. Once It opened his or her eyes, It would proceed to find the first person. The found player would then join It in searching for the others. This pattern would continue until everyone was caught.
Younger players would inevitably get caught first, and they would strategize together to catch the older players. Over time, the hiding strategies of the older players would be learned by the younger, and the cycle continued. Gray (2011) concluded that
“…age-mixed play offers opportunities for learning and development not present
in play among those close in age, permitting younger children to learn more from
older playmates than they could from playing with only their peers. …the more
sophisticated behavior of older children offers role models for younger children…
…permits older children to learn by teaching and to practice nurturance and
leadership; and they are often inspired by the imagination and creativity of their
In remembering the beauty and wonders of play, it begs the question, where did we go wrong? Has the advent of technology taken us away from the social richness of play in a manner that television never could? How can we turn back the clock on the narrow testing and accountability, policy driven, standards based schooling that now dominates the educational landscape? These are more than just questions to ponder. The mental health and well-being of generations of young people depend on our collective next steps.
“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” - Albert Einstein
When she was U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated the following: “We were so independent, we were given so much freedom. But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today. It’s one of the great losses as a society. But I’m hopeful that we can regain the joy and experience of free play and neighborhood games that were taken for granted growing up in my generation. That would be one of the best gifts we could give our children.”
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2009). Belonging, Being, and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra: Australian Government.
Gray, Peter (2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
Gray, Peter (2011). The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 500-522.
Hughes, Fergus (2003). Sensitivity to the Social and Cultural Contexts of the Play of Young Children, In J. Isenberg & L. Jalongo (Eds.), Major Trends and Issues in early Childhood: Challenges, Controversies, and Insights (pp. 126-135). New York: Teachers College Press.
Hughes, Fergus (2003). Spontaneous Play in the 21st Century. In B. Spodek & O. Saracho (Eds.), Contemporary Perspectives on Play in early Childhood Education (pp. 21-39), Greenwich, CT.: Information Age Publishing.
Partanen, Anu (2011). What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school success/250564/
Vanderschuren, Louk J.M.J. (2010). How the Brain Makes Play Fun. American Journal of Play, 2(3), 315-337.