Childhood As ‘Resume Building’: Why Play Needs A Comeback

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Students catch falling Jenga pieces while participating in Global School Play Day.

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“Why is it that we don’t go outside as much as my parents did as children?” This sixth-grader’s question caught teacher Kath Irving off-guard. Inherent in the query is a recognition that times are different now and children notice it. 

Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray marks the 1950s as the heyday of play in the United States. Back then, children played in the streets with other neighborhood kids, learning how to navigate the world by interacting with one another. This kind of play was unstructured and unsupervised by adults. Kids independently generated the activities and the rules. If someone broke the rules, kids determined the consequences. And without knowing it, they developed resilience, self-determination and problem-solving. Researchers have since connected skills gained in unsupervised play to positive mental health, social and emotional skills, agency, intrinsic motivation and creativity. 

But this kind of free play may be a relic of the past. A confluence of family dynamics, economic and academic anxiety, fear of strangers, and vehicular traffic have put play at risk. University of Michigan researchers surveyed how families spent their time in 1981 and again in 1997. They observed a drop in the amount of free time kids have for play from 40 percent of a child's day to 25 percent. By 2003, that amount of time dropped by another 4 percent. At the same time, the amount of time kids spend on academics has increased. This period is also marked by rising competition for college admissions, and the decline of middle-class opportunities in the United States.

“So childhood is turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building,” said Gray in his popular TEDx Talk.  

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Still, children need to play. Peter Gray connects the decline of free play to the rise in mental health issues. And the American Academy of Pediatrics has gone so far as to recommended that pediatricians “advocate for the protection of children’s unstructured playtime because of its numerous benefits, including the development of foundational motor skills that may have lifelong benefits for the prevention of obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.” 

Gray’s message resonates with Scott Bedley, 2014 Orange County Teacher of the Year, who teaches fourth grade. 

“We’re just seeing an out-of-balance life for kids,” he said of students he sees who are pressured to succeed academically. “There is a learning value behind play if you just allow it to happen.”

Bedley has seen the consequences of stressed-out kids who aren’t getting enough free time, and he’s not alone. Those experiences prompted him and several teachers in his professional network to start Global School Play Day in 2015. They figured if kids didn’t have enough time to play after school, they’d elevate its importance by devoting an entire school day to it. They hoped it would jump-start a broader conversation among parents and teachers about what kids are missing when there’s too much focus on achievement.

Global School Play Day is about kids directing their own experience, so students can choose to use the time to play outside, play board games, draw, paint, do puzzles or just goof off. Some are so unused to playing they don’t even know how to start. But the Global School Play Day movement is growing. In 2019, organizers estimate 535,690 students participated.

Listen to this episode of the MindShift Podcast to learn how students experience this unusual day of play at school. You’ll hear from students who are getting reacquainted with the idea of unstructured play. You'll also hear from educators like Eric Saibel and Nathan Beach as they host Global School Play Day at Hall Middle School. They hope exposing kids and parents to play at school will start a conversation about how they use their time at home, while helping kids to have a better-balanced life.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:
via Apple Podcasts | via Stitcher | via NPROne | via Spotify

 

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