Play is the work of childhood.

“Play is the work of childhood”. Whether this was originally said by Piaget or Montessori is unclear, but there is no lack of clarity in the meaning. Our children learn when they play.

As we look towards the successes of the Finnish education system it is worth pointing out that their elementary school children have 75 minutes per day of unstructured recess and playtime. I recall when I was an assistant principal in Australia, the teachers complained that during the 45 minutes of lunch time free play there seemed to be a spike in small injuries. Disagreements in the playground increased during the final fifteen minute period. They wanted to cut the playtime to thirty minutes, matching the thirty minutes of free play that all the children had mid-morning. The request was taken to School Council where the parent members roundly dismissed the request. “Play time is when my kids learn all about team work, negotiation, and cooperation. If there’s no friction, there’s no need to learn how to compromise”, argued one father. So we maintained the daily 75 minutes of free, unstructured play.

It came as quite a shock to discover in the last school that I led that the school district permitted only 20 minutes each day for recess. The school near my house had done away with recess altogether. I was also surprised when some of my teachers complained that the children kept running into things and each other during recess, so I went outside several times to specifically focus on this. They were right. The kids walked down the steps and then broke into a run that often resulted in collisions. Why? My observations persuaded me that they were so pent up that they were like springs suddenly released when they hit the open spaces. They also had so little experience with physical play that they had not learned how to play actively around one another.

What are we doing to our youngest children when we keep them penned up in classrooms for 6 or 7 hours a day? They walk in carefully monitored, silent lines from classroom to lunch room and back again. They largely remain seated and hopefully following instructions while they are in the classroom. At the end of the day they line up for the bus, sit quietly (I’m being hopeful again!) on the bus until they get home. This amounts to an eight hour day with 15 minutes of running around!

We are training our children to be compliant because we are refusing to allow them the freedom to sort things out for themselves. Playgrounds are the places where children learn what is fair and what the consequences will be if you act unfairly. They learn how to take turns and what happens to them when they won’t. Children learn how to function as social beings in the playground, not in the classroom where the teacher arranges, resolves and manages everything.

In schools where children have extended unstructured play times the supervising teachers provided constant support as the kids learn how to negotiate and compromise. How many times have I sat on a seat outside with a crying, outraged child sitting next to me? We would explore what had led to the crisis, talk about possible solutions and then I would send the child back into the group to re-establish himself, with a lesson or two hopefully learned through experience.

The world is a very deep pool indeed, and many of the pressures and problems of the ‘real world’ exist in the hustle bustle of the playground and not in the classroom. As educators we should be providing the opportunities for children to learn how to safely stay afloat in the shallows of the playground, teaching them the things they need in order to survive successfully when they move into the deeper waters of the world outside school, when they will no longer have our protective arms to keep them afloat.

What do you think? What is your experience now and how does it compare with when you went to school?

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