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  • Recovering from the pandemic is going to take resilience and creativity along with a host of intangibles, many of which can result from independent, unstructured play. Tweet This
  • In a new study, teachers felt the impact of free play and longer recess time helped with students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom. Tweet This

“Mother Nature put the drive to play in children to allow the skills to develop [that help] the species continue,” argues Lenore Skenazy, president of the non-profit Let Grow. Happily, a new study of one of the organization’s early central projects—promoting free play for kids minus adult organization and coordination—has bolstered her argument, showing that when kids get the chance to play together without interference from adults, amazing things happen. As Skenazy explained to me in a recent phone interview, the kids learn to “solve problems, create something that works, or change if it isn’t working.” 

The study, which was published in the latest issue of the School Community Journalis based on an effort “to provide data related to the benefits of unstructured play and recess in elementary schools,” according to authors Heather Macpherson Parrott and Lynne E. Cohen, both professors at Long Island University. Cohen and Parrott looked at a Let Grow Play Club that had recently been established at an elementary school in Long Island, NY. The Play Club is meant to provide an hour of play, before and/or after school, for kids of different ages and grade levels. The results are encouraging:“students identified three main  benefits of  Play Club, namely increased focus during school, improved mood, and opportunities to build friendships.”

In response to the recognized crisis in childhood play, the researchers were curious to see the results of one attempt to mitigate the problem. They identified the commitment by one school superintendent to increase play time during the day by requiring 40-minutes of recess in all seven of the district’s elementary schools, along with initiating a Let Grow Play Club before school one day per week. Cohen and Parrott then studied both the effect on students as well as what teachers had to say about the impact of these changes. 

"Students perceived Play Club as helping them to stay focused during school, improve their mood, and to socialize and make new friends," the researchers report. "Much of what elementary students do during recess—including making friends, deciding what is fair, and developing rules for games—involves social skills.” But “social skills” aren’t what made the biggest difference. One participant said that he had few friends in his grade, but that the Play Club allowed him to meet and make friends in other grades. “I liked that I made new friends,” he said. 

One teacher remarked that a girl whose personality was more forceful and commanding (aka bossy) found it possible to self-regulate when involved in the Play Club because younger kids were looking to her to keep the play going and she in turn was motivated to maintain their involvement and enjoyment. “I think longer recess [and the Let Grow Play Club] really does help—them  being  able  to  socialize,  problem  solve,  and  be  creative  in  what they’re playing, then adapt their game to meet different hurdles and challenges that they come across while playing,” one teacher told researchers. 

Overall, teachers felt the impact of free play before school and longer recess time during the day helped with the students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom. “They are more focused when they come back and start to get into the academics of their school day,” a teacher reported.

According to the researchers, “teachers do not believe that students have enough unstructured play at home but do believe there are benefits to having unstructured play incorporated within the school day.” And this is exactly the logic behind why Let Grow developed the program in the first place. Skenazy and company wanted to get the kids where they are, namely at school, to start trying to change the culture around play. 

I asked Skenazy what happened to all this great momentum when COVID hit and so many schools closed. 

Skenazy said she put the in-school effort on hold and ramped up a second school initiative called Let Grow Independence Kit, where kids choose activities to do on their own at home. Teachers have assigned the independence kit as a remote learning activity and a sampling by Let Grow of those who have participated turned up something really interesting. “We heard about [kids doing] new things,” Skenazy explained, like “baking and biking.” But a random sampling of kids and parents also revealed what Skenazy describes as a flourishing of idiosyncratic interests the kids would never have had the opportunity to pursue previously. “There’s an 8-year-old trading bitcoin and another kid who fell in love with 1940s gangsters,” she said. 

As we approach the post-COVID era, Skenazy is looking forward to a reinvigorated effort to get kids playing more when schools fully reopen. “Academically everyone will be in the same boat,” Skenazy says about school reopening. “But you also want kids growing” socially and having fun, she argues. And the best way to jump start all of that would be to get more kids outside for free play. Parrot and Cohen agree. “Periods of play may be even more important as students work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” they write. 

Indeed, recovering from the pandemic is going to take resilience and creativity along with a host of intangibles, many of which can result from independent, unstructured play. As professor Allison Gopnik has written, “The fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal seeking in the short run.” Gopnik thinks play is so important that the need for it goes beyond even children:

Just as we should give children the resources and space to play and do so without insisting that play will have immediate payoffs, we should do the same for scientists and artists and all the others who explore human possibilities.

The study authors also sound a warning about how important the effort to increase playtime is for all students and especially those who come from economically challenged communities, writing: "We must approach expanding play to all students as a social justice issue...for the development and personal growth of the most disadvantaged and most needy.” The skills that come from independent free play may be considered “soft” life skills, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant to the future thriving of citizens and communities.

Abby W. Schachter, a research fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of “No Child Left Alone: Getting the government out of parenting.”