Why Play Matters Now

Culture arises in the form of play. –J. Huizinga, historian

It was hot, buggy, and so muggy that my once-cute cotton dress was dripping, but this late-summer evening I still went outside and played a sweaty and disorganized game of baseball with my kids. Play, and especially outdoor play, is a necessity for our family – with three highly energetic boys, lots of activity is the only way to calm them down by bedtime (and the only way to keep our furniture somewhat intact).

Science has been telling us for some time that calming hyper boys is not nearly the only reason to play. Play is fun and reduces stress; play helps children perform and behave better. Play helps children learn to solve problems. Studies have linked creativity and imagination to play, and physically active play provides benefits for body and mind.

Many of our schools are late to the playdate, however: an informal parent survey I conducted earlier this summer told me that many elementary kids around the country, both urban and suburban, get no more than 15-20 minutes of recess per day, weather permitting. When my children were in a low-play environment (they were in the 15-20 minute recess category), my oldest son especially would arrive home from school simultaneously tense and worn-out. Because his lunch period was linked to recess, he rarely ate his home-packed lunch – it took too long. My son reported to me the sorry state of the children who were last in line to receive the school lunch: by the time they got their food, they didn’t have time to both eat and have recess. He told me about one first-grader who seemed torn between eating his lunch and playing outside; always the last in line, as soon as he picked up his tray of school lunch food, he’d round the corner to the cafeteria, stuff a few bites in his mouth, then dump his lunch in the trash can and run outside.

While I understand (and have experienced) the crowded school situations that cause this kind of behavior (and I know that underfunded, short-staffed schools often shorten recess because there aren’t enough teachers to watch all the children), I still have to wonder whether replacing play with the push for more classroom time is the way to go – would more play time during the school day make our kids smarter, better behaved, and healthier? And what about happier, less stressed, better able to cope? Is our attitude toward free play really a reality check for our culture at large?

Learning environments like Waldorf education put a premium on play: my kindergarten aged-son’s 4-hour program provides an hour of unorganized outdoor play no matter the weather; my fourth grader gets two thirty-five minute recesses, one that’s usually an organized game like kick-ball or capture the flag. Since they have switched to a play-priority school, their attitudes toward school, obviously, have changed. There is no more after-school hyperactivity/exhaustion, and no fights to get them there in the morning, either. In addition, the amount of time they get to play every day makes them feel as if they belong, as if school is a place for them – a place where they get to do something they like to do. My sons come out of school relaxed, covered in dirt, smiles on their faces. During their day, they have worked and they have played. They appear satisfied, content, ready for what the afternoon holds.

I’m hoping for less humidity, but I know that, no matter what the weather holds for me, tomorrow evening I will be outside, playing with my sweaty sons. For their hearts, their minds, their bodies, and their happiness – for now, play is the thing.