30 January 2011

The plight of recess in schools

“Exploration and play ... are the basis for creative problem solving and lifelong learning. Creative thinking is fostered in classrooms where children are given opportunities to explore new materials and ideas, play with these materials or ideas, and construct new knowledge and skills....”  - Deborah W. Tegano, James D. Moran III, and Janet K. Sawyers, Creativity in Early Childhood Classroom, reprinted in Bainbridge's article “Creative Ways to Foster Creativity”.

    Creativity and playing seem to go hand in hand.  Being able to play should be second nature to children, especially imaginative play.  How many adults can remember being able to build anything out of a large cardboard box?  Or remember when a backyard full of sticks made one giddy because there was just so much to do with them?  Or getting a big box of blocks or Legos to create whatever one wanted? Can many adults remember when the playground at school or the park was a spaceship to take one to the moon?  Imaginations abounded when one was allowed to play and laugh and explore freely.  Yet, many schools are cutting recess and free play out of their school days and giving children more structured instructional time to increase test scores and increase the amount of time that children are learning.  

    This cutting back of recess and time children have free-playing is coming at a time when scientists are discovering that being able to freely play enables students to problem solve, be creative, develop social skills, and learn to control themselves.  Scientists are also discovering that unstructured free play may even make children more intelligent, as it appears to help engage their brains better. (To see the source on this, click here)

    So why this push for less recess?  Many schools are answering with this: they want to better improve test scores and school performances and enable more time for structured learning.

    There seems to be a conundrum.  Schools want smarter students and yet they are leaning towards cutting a crucial element from their school day that enables children to develop into intelligent, creative and well-socialized adults.  Instead of giving children the chance to open up their own imaginations and socialize with one another in a unstructured setting, there is structured class time or structured play time where the teachers set the rules and the limits instead of letting children learn them for themselves.  We are hindering the creativity and ultimately the intelligence of our students by cutting back on recess and free play.

    We as a society need to let our kids be able to be kids.  We should allow them more time for mobile, active free play and engage their minds in their imaginations instead of telling them what to do and how to think every minute of the day at school.  Cutting recess and free play from their daily lives not only hinders their imagination, it hinders their ability to become the workforce that businesses are clamoring for.  We are standardizing our students.

    As teachers, we should push for more free play time.  We should encourage teachers to have a little more free play time in their classrooms and should encourage children to actively play more at home.  We also should not be afraid to play ourselves.  Yes, academics are important, but so also is playtime.  The two can go hand in hand if we allow it.  As the German classical composer Carl Orff once said, children “would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child's play." It is through play that children learn best.

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