Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Need Unstructured Play: A Global School Play Day Post

this post is written by Eric Saibel for #WeirdEd Week 135 and to support the Global School Play Day Initiative.

As a father and 20-year educator, I observe the inexorable role of play in the daily life of children. Play is a child’s default setting, interrupted only by some natural cycles (like sleep) and other quotidian obligations. At my school I see students running and playing every spare moment they can. The need for play - as both creative outlet and survival tool - is a tectonic force deep within us. So why does the idea of play seem so contrary to the idea of school?

At some point, society began to see play as separate from serious learning and work - the opposite of productive endeavor. The traditional model of school reserves play as something to be done at set times and places, or as a reward for good behavior. Articles in major publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times have highlighted overwhelming amounts of stress for teens in highest-performing schools, which can contribute to a higher susceptibility for depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation. Now more than ever is an ideal time to reconsider the critical importance of free play in school and life.

Research strongly supports this; play is a catalyst for connecting synapses, developing empathy, nurturing creativity and bolstering happiness. So how can we tap into that magic potion in our decades-long struggle to improve education?

In early 2015, a group of educators saw a TEDx talk from Dr. Peter Gray about the decline of play in our society and decided to create a day - just one out of 180 in the school calendar - dedicated to unstructured play for kids. A month later, with shoestring promotion through social media, the first ever Global School Play Day took place on February 4, 2015. Over 65,000 children from six continents participated; last year, the number rose to nearly 180,000 children.

Play isn’t just for the youngest kids; why shouldn’t high school (or college) seniors feel just as joyful about their learning as kindergartners? Education needs to rethink its age-old mindset that fun is frivolous and that free choice is somehow contrary to rigorous learning. We must also remember another important fact: adults thrive and learn through play as well.

Play is a design laboratory, an exercise in problem-solving and collaboration. Play builds physical muscle and emotional resilience. Play is our first - and best - learning methodology. Help your local school reinvest in the power and potential of play by encouraging them to sign up for this global event on February 1. This year we hope to see more schools and districts embrace play as an essential element of learning. Instead of 180,000 students, why not 180 million? Each and every one of them needs play as much as the other.

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