The Power of Play

The quote above is backed up by the following research:

Let the Children Play: Why more play will save our schools and help our children thrive, Pasi Sahlberg & Bill Doyle (2019)

The LiiNk Project: Effects of Multiple Recesses and Character Curriculum on Classroom Behaviors and Listening Skills in Grades K-2 Children, Deborah Rhea & Alexander Rivchun (2018)

Over the long weekend, I started reading The Playful Classroom by Jed Dearybury and Julie P. Jones. I think many of you know that I love to play. I have a basketball hoop on the back of one of my doors in my office. I keep a RAZR scooter behind the other door in my office. At home, you can regularly find me with my kids in Nerf gun battles or building LEGOS. The other day I spent several hours outside with my kids in the snow building a massive hill to make sledding in our front yard a little more fun. I like fun!

What I really love about this book (so far… I’m only about halfway through so you might hear more about it later!) is the mixture of real-life examples and classroom ideas/strategies, combined with research to support a shift to more play in the day. Reflecting on the quote above, when is behavior typically the biggest struggle in the classroom? In my own classroom experience, things went steadily downhill when we went over about 20 minutes of learning without some kind of transition or movement break. Even for me, depending on when you come into my office, you may find me standing at my “standing desk” (really it’s a closet with the doors and some of the shelves removed), or I might be sitting at the table by the window (this is a reading/creative thinking spot), or maybe at the round table in the middle of the room (this is my focused work/thinking spot). Sometimes I’m even at my “standing desk” but actually sitting on a high stool. For me, movement is an important part of my day. My brain gets sluggish if I spend too long in one spot or with one view.

As an adult, I’ve learned how to cope with those moments that I’m not able to move around much. I choose to sit in the back of meetings a lot (pre-Covid), not so that I can check out of what’s going on, but so that I can stand if I start to feel antsy. That way I stay focused on the meeting. Most of our zoom meetings I do at my standing desk so that I can stand, or pull my stool up if I need to sit. When I went to China to visit and learn about STEM education from their perspective, I had a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Shanghai (Yes, I said 13 HOURS!!!). While my seat was an aisle seat and it was easy to get up, there weren’t many options for movement. I adapted. I read (a LOT), I slept (a LITTLE), and I watched at least part of 3(!!!) movies. When we arrived in Shanghai and got off the plane, I wanted to sleep in a bed, I wanted to run, I wanted to move. Unfortunately, we weren’t at our final destination yet and had to take a bus 3 hours to Hangzhou. As exciting as it was to be in China, that was a tough day for me mentally. Luckily I was with a pretty awesome group of fellow educators that kept my spirits lifted!

But our students aren’t adults! The human body has adapted over the last 1-2 million-ish years to move. Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers who spent much of their days up and moving around. It wasn’t really until the industrial revolution and digital age that most humans became much more sedentary. That’s just the last 300ish years! In terms of time for human adaptation, that’s nothing more than a drop of water in a bucket. As adults with a fully formed prefrontal cortex (you know, the logic part of the brain), we are able to notice what’s happening in our body and give ourselves what we need. That’s why when we were in virtual instruction in December/January, I’d run into some of the teachers in my school walking around the building. Our brains craved movement! But our students probably haven’t developed that part of the brain yet. Did you know that current research says that the human brain isn’t fully developed until somewhere around age 25? As educators, if we know that humans need to move, and we know our students probably aren’t able to cope with those long bouts of seat time, aren’t we duty-bound to provide them times to move?

And when sociologists spend time studying hunter-gatherer society, one of the things they learn again and again is that the children spend their day playing. The quote from adults in the hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today is “Why wouldn’t we let the children play? That’s how they learn.” 

Huh??? What have we been missing here in the “civilized” world about learning?

You see, when the human body is stagnant (sitting at a desk, on the carpet, etc.) the brain functioning goes DOWN not UP. Check out the graphic below to see what a 20-minute walk does for the brain.

When I was still a baby teacher, it was my goal that if an administrator walked into my room, the class would be seated at their desks and working silently. It took me a couple of years to figure out that this method didn’t work for ME or MY STUDENTS! Now, as an administrator, when I walk into a classroom that is silent my first thought is “What’s wrong here?” 

In the summer of 2000, I decided to take a couple of classes at Indiana University School of Education. One of them was a methods of instruction class. Our professor drilled it into us – “Learning is social!” She gave us time to talk, time to reflect, time to respond to one another. Clearly it mattered because it sticks with me to this day. When I was that baby teacher who wanted to look like I had my stuff (classroom management) together, I was actually doing a disservice to my students. I even had a parent who called me on that stuff early in my career. In our conversation, she said, “How do you expect Tommy (names have been changed to protect the innocent) to learn if he’s bored!” I thought she was wrong. I thought we needed quiet to learn. I was so wrong. I didn’t get it!

Luckily, I’ve come around to different understandings. In the 2 schools that I have served as an administrator, we have participated in the Global School Play Day. I have pushed teachers to rethink taking recess away from students who misbehave (see that quote at the top again). I don’t want to claim that we’re perfect, but we’re on a path to learn what it is that will help increase student learning as well as empower our students to be the best they can be. I have found that as we implemented more play into our days, behavior issues actually go down!

How many of you have ever done any research on schools in Finland? Consistently ranked as one of the top systems of education in the world, it’s worth pointing out one of the structures of their day: They spend 15 minutes of free play time out of every hour of their school day. You can read about the experience of one American educator who taught in Helsinki here. And when you add in some character education, the results are staggering (check out the work of Rhea & Rivchun at the top of this post).

As I think about this need for movement, for free play, for social time, it’s got me thinking about a few practices that we still see in our schools, especially our elementary schools.

Why do we only have one 30 minute recess per day? Is that truly enough activity to meet the learning and social needs of our students? I watch my kids at home. Most of their time is spent in some form of play. But then when we send them to school we expect them to sit in a classroom for 6+ hours per day. And as students get older, and they need movement more to adapt to their changing bodies, we first reduce recess time (15 minutes in 5th/6th grade in my community), and then take it away completely (7th grade is the end of recess here). I don’t remember much of my middle school years. I mean, who really wants to remember that time with all the changes we all go through at that stage in life? But you know what I do remember CLEARLY? 2 things… When the weather was nice, our cafeteria monitors would let us go outside for the last 10 minutes of lunch. We’d throw a football or frisbee around. It wasn’t called recess, but it was exactly what our bodies needed! The other thing I remember was the last day of school – we’d have a massive field day with games to play, a DJ to dance to, and free time to interact and socialize with our friends. My junior high memories wrapped up in one sentence: One day, plus 10 minutes of fun on nice weather days. If you could see me right now, you’d be dizzy with how hard I’m shaking my head.

Next, why do we need students to walk in a line down the hall? And why do some of them have to be boy/girl? You know where else people walk in lines? Prison and the army. In the pre-Covid world, when you were out with friends, did you walk in straight lines? how awkward would that be? Now, I know, the environment is different, but as adults, we all had to learn to act responsibly in the spaces we were in. We didn’t get taught that by someone telling us when we had to be silent. We learned by reacting to feedback from people around us. I remember being out with friends and walking through the student union in college. We were walking in what could best be described as a blob and so engaged in our conversation that we didn’t even realize we had entered an area that many were using to study. We got lots of evil looks from people and quickly got quiet until we had moved out of that space. Of course, when we were out of ear shot we burst into laughter, but we also learned from feedback. What feedback could you provide your students if they get too crazy in the hall? I don’t know that telling them to walk in a line is going to fix that! It sure didn’t work for me when I was a classroom teacher! What if we leaned on the empathy that so many of our students have? What if we asked them how it felt when we were in the classroom and someone was too crazy in the hall?

Another thing I wonder about, why do we encourage students to “put a bubble in it” when they walk in the hallway? Do we overuse phrases like “quiet coyote” or “give me five” in the classrooms? If we know that students need physical activity and cognitive breaks in some moments to help balance out those moments we actually do need them to be focused, are we choosing the quiet moments correctly? Now, I’m not saying that the hallway of all schools should be a free for all with students running every which way and yelling at one another, or that our classrooms should be a mixture of noise and movement at all times, but don’t humans learn responsibility by being trusted to act responsibly? Can’t we work on teaching our students to behave in a responsible way? Just yesterday I was in the hallway and I could hear the sound of a student running in their snow boots. He rounded the corner with a joyful smile on his face. “What’s up?” I said to him. “I have to get back to class! I don’t want to miss what we are doing!” He had such joy on his face that it brought a smile to mine! Don’t we want our schools to be joyful places for us all? In that moment, the last thing I thought about was telling that student he needed to walk. We should want our students to run to class so that they don’t miss what’s happening!

So, as I continue to read The Playful Classroom, it’s got me thinking and wondering about the things we do in schools. Do we do things like have students walk in lines in the hallway and stay quiet in the classroom because it’s what is best for our student’s learning, or because it’s what is easiest for us as adults? I’m going to continue to watch the things that happen in our buildings, and when I notice something that doesn’t seem quite right to me, I’m going to ask myself why. I’m also planning to dig into the work of Pasi Sahlberg, Bill Doyle, Deborah Rhea, and Alexander Rivchun (see the links above). Creating joyful learning environments should be our top priority! Not just because we want students to enjoy being at school, or because we want to enjoy being at school, but because play and joy actually open our minds to greater learning!