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Transcript: Childhood As 'Resume Building': Why Play Needs A Comeback

Katrina Schwartz: Welcome to Mindshift, where we explore the future of learning and how we raise our kids. I’m Katrina Schwartz.

Ki Sung: And I’m Ki Sung. So, Katrina, as you and I were talking about earlier, back at the start of the year, we saw an unusual amount of buzz on our social media channels.

Katrina Schwartz: Right! But it wasn’t an educational topic, at least not in the traditional sense.

Ki Sung: Totally. We got thousands of responses to an article we posted about schools that have set aside one day a year to cancel classes and let students play instead of work.

Katrina Schwartz: And parents were divided about it.


Ki Sung: Right. Some parents thought it was silly to do that at school because that’s what weekends are for. Other parents were intrigued.

Katrina Schwartz: I was intrigued.

Ki Sung: Me too. So I looked into it, and it turns out, one of the leading schools in this “one day of school play” movement is Hall Middle School,here in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. So I went there.

Sounds of kids at school

Katrina Schwartz: So what does it look like?

Ki Sung: What I noticed driving through this community was, it’s beautiful. It’s bucolic, clearly an affluent community. And these families have resources, so a lot of these kids have lots of extracurricular activities. But what they don’t have a lot of is free time. I just want to play you some tape of how these kids spend their time afterschool.

Student #1: A lot of people have sports practices, they have to drive to those and drive back and then eat dinner and then go to bed, go back, so they don’t have anything else to do.

Student #2: Even if you have time, your friends are usually not free.

Student #3: I go home I do sports then I have homework then I eat dinner and I go to bed. That’s pretty much my life.

Student #4: I went to bed at 11:30 yesterday.

Ki Sung: Kids are busy. So here at Hall Middle School, a small group of passionate teachers have done something about it. It’s called Global School Play Day, and it’s become a global movement. Half a million kids do it once a year.

When I first heard about this, it was kind of hard for me to wrap my head around. Like, why would a school use class time for play?

Kath Irving: Thank you boys, can you please find your seats and get your writer’s notebooks out.

Ki Sung: It turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was confused about that. When I walked into Kath Irving’s sixth grade English class, I caught her explaining the concept to her kids, preparing them for the next day’s playtime agenda.

Kath Irving: Tomorrow we are going to be participating in doing global school play day.

Ki Sung: To my surprise, the kids didn’t burst with excitement. Instead, they seemed a little confused. They had questions.

Student #5: I don’t understand. Don’t we come to school to learn?

Student #6: Um, why is it that we don’t go outside as much as my parents did as children?

Ki Sung: Did you hear that last kid? He said, “why is it that we don’t go outside as much as my parents did as children?” This makes me feel really old, but it turns out the kind of free play so many of us had back when we were kids is already a relic of the past. Hearing these kids made me think back to my own childhood as a latchkey kid. I had tons of time with nothing to do but roam my suburban L.A. neighborhood on foot, play with my friends in their apartment complexes and buy candy and nachos from the 7-11. Being busy with organized sports and enrichment looked kind of great, but that wasn’t a priority for my parents.

The following morning, Global School Play Day dawned over Hall Middle School. It was a sunny, nearly cloudless day, perfect for whatever trouble the kids could get into.

Kath Irving: Let Global Play Day begin.

Ki Sung: In Miss Irving’s class, it took a minute for the kids to warm up. But soon enough, they were playing games like Apples to Apples and Sorry. Ms. Irving started making a paper chain garland and other kids joined in. A couple of boys go outside to fly paper airplanes.

Student: 3, 2, 1...Oh God, Blake.

Ki Sung: Some self-possessed kids stayed at their desks reading books. That’s OK. And a few kids were goofing off on a chair, pushing each other and tipping the chair over.

Student #1: You’re the one that fell down.

Student #2: No!

Sounds of laughing

Ki Sung: On any other day, these kids would probably get sent to the office.

Jake: They threw me down, picked me up, started swinging me. They didn’t drop me hard. They placed me down, and then I grabbed their foot and they tripped and started running.

Ki Sung: Ms. Irving, who I suspect is a master of the important teacher ability to see everything that goes on in her classroom, didn’t seem to care! Instead, she went on stapling the chains of the garland and didn’t interfere with anyone’s horseplay.

But that didn’t mean her class turned into a free-for-all. Throwing things in class is not OK.

Student: She had to make me sit down for five minutes, but I’m going to get up now because I don’t care. I’m just going to Snap, Snap, Snap, get up.

Ki Sung: He was sent back to his seat by Ms. Irving.

Then, I took a walk to other classes. Nearby, in Mr. Watenpool’s math class, kids were playing Follow the Leader.

Doug Watenpool: Brady. Go Julia!

Ki Sung: And just beyond his class, kids were doing flips on their scooters during what would normally be science class.

And some girls were super excited about face-painting. The kids got to paint a school administrator, which they loved.

Student: Even the vice principal got make up. And Miss Brown, Miss Brown.

Ki Sung: In the face of all this chaos, I might have expected to find principal Eric Saibel, walkie-talkie in hand, calling for reinforcements. Instead, he was all smiles. He’d been tweeting about this event for months. For him, it’s the best day of the school year. In fact, he’s a co-founder of Global School Play Day. He says, there is logic to the chaos.

Eric Saibel: Play is a part of learning. It’s not separate from it. And that schools are a wonderful place for children to experience play in a social setting. Depending on the neighborhood you live in, you might not necessarily have a lot of kids around you.

Ki Sung: Saibel grew up in the Bay Area, competing in sports teams and loving the outdoors. He started his career teaching at a high school, where the social norms are different than middle school.

Eric Saibel: So, the first fall that I was here at the middle school as an assistant principal after 16 years of working in high school. And you know and I think that it really started to dawn on me just how powerful the biological imperative is for children to play.

Ki Sung: Global School Play Day would never have happened if Saibel hadn’t met two brothers on Twitter -- Tim and Scott Bedley -- teachers who live and work in Southern California. The brothers had noticed that their students’ lives seemed out of balance. They came up with the idea of a day devoted to play.

The three educators shared mutual devotion to their guru -- Peter Gray, a Boston College professor, who has spent his career pleading with adults to get out of their kids’ way so they can have a childhood. Here’s a clip from his TED Talk.

Peter Gray: Play is nature’s means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood.

Ki Sung: Getting along with other people, being empathetic, being creative.

Still not sold on the value of play? Allow me to share an intriguing bit of research with you. It doesn’t have human children in it, but it does have rats. Young rats.

Bear with me.

Play is a feature of the human experience. It’s all over the animal kingdom, too.

For decades, researchers have been studying the effect of play on animal brain development.

In 2002, there was a well-known experiment on two groups of young rats. One group was allowed to play play play with their friends 24 hours a day. And then there was another group of rats who were more of the loners -- they were raised in isolation.

Then, both groups of young rats were introduced to a third colony of rats that already had an established pecking order, alpha male and all.

The researchers quickly observed a vast difference in the social skills between the groups. The rats that had been allowed to play quickly figured out how to avoid the alpha male’s wrath by crouching down and staying still. But the rats that didn’t get to play had trouble fitting in. They couldn’t read the social cues and they moved around the cage in a way that made them a target for attacks from older rats.

Poor little rats.

The bottom line: young rats need free play with other young rats to become well-adjusted adult rats.

Now, rats are different from human children.

But Peter Gray has used these studies to contend that this is what’s happening to our human kids with all the academics and extracurriculars piled onto them.

They’re not getting the time to play freely with each other.

Peter Gray: The view that children learn best, everything, from adults. That children’s own self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policies with regard to children. So childhood is turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume building.

Ki Sung: Now, as someone who grew up unsupervised without afterschool enrichment, this kind of research feels kind of counter intuitive. I never thought that there would be an upside to being a latchkey kid. Playing with other kids, wandering around the neighborhood without supervision didn’t feel like anything more than the byproduct of having working parents.

But unstructured play, for some educators, isn’t just about raising better adults. It may also be about saving lives.

Stay with us.

Ki Sung: Welcome back to the MindShift Podcast. I’m Ki Sung.

To get a deeper understanding of why there’s so much support for a better balanced life here at Hall Middle School, you have to know a bit of the darker subtext of the community. About five miles away is Tamalpais High School. In 2006 and 2007, when Eric Saibel was a Spanish teacher, two students from that school committed suicide.

And it wasn’t confined to that school. There was another pair of suicides in a neighboring community. Here’s Saibel.

Eric Saibel: Two of them were my students. Mm hmmm. One was a graduate. And one was a mid-year suicide. And then the other two children were not my students. But you know at a school of eleven twelve hundred students you know it feels very personal regardless of if you know the child or not. Yeah.

Ki Sung: More than a decade after their deaths, long since these kids were featured in the local news, he still thinks about them -- deeply.

Eric Saibel: I don’t know, I feel a responsibility in part. I feel so bad that I haven't reached out to those families subsequently to just tell them that I think about them that their kids are still a part of my DNA as a person and as a professional. It’s unresolved and it's also a burden that we do carry around as educators, certainly as a principal, where when every day starts you understand and know that you need to keep 520 students safe.

Ki Sung: Teachers across the nation are really concerned about student mental health. I hear this from them all the time. Fortunately, schools are trying to help kids develop better coping skills. And on this day, play is a part of the solution.

Nathan Beach: This is probably my favorite day of the year.

Ki Sung: When I met social studies teacher Nathan Beach, back at Hall Middle School, he was wearing a Global School Play Day shirt.

Nathan Beach: I’m a big supporter of this big idea of getting kids to take a break in their busy lives and it’s a break for me too. It’s just a lot of fun.

Ki Sung: He was tweeting photos of his kids assembling puzzles, playing “Apples to Apples” and an epic game of Jenga.

Student: Ugh! There goes our Jenga.

Ki Sung: Like Saibel, he has witnessed students struggling with mental health, both as a fellow student in Palo Alto in the 1990s and later on as a teacher in that community.

Nathan Beach: And then once I became a teacher, I really started to see it. I grew up in Palo Alto and there was a couple of different suicide clusters in the high schools there after I was a student but I did teach in the district during one of those clusters and so it's just something that has been growing in my awareness but especially since I became an educator.

Ki Sung: When Beach was earning his masters degree in education, he made it his focus to study mental health in school. As part of his master’s project, he had students take inventory of their feelings every day for six weeks to see what he could do to help.

Nathan Beach: You know, answering questions. ‘I feel stressed. I feel calm. I am worried. I am happy’ -- those kinds of things.

Ki Sung: What he learned was that kids are most stressed on Mondays and Thursdays.

Nathan Beach: Mondays because that's when everybody assigns work for the week and then Thursdays because they have to finish everything because it's all due on Friday. Just kind of exploring the data opened my eyes and really helped me figure out ways I can tweak my own classroom procedures, and the way I assign work and everything, to kind of reduce that as much as I can.

Ki Sung: Back at the playground at Hall Middle School with Eric Saibel, I noticed something that seemed off to me. Kids didn’t have cell phones. They weren’t hunched over alone together. Not only is Global School Play Day analog and not digital, they took away their phones.

Eric Saibel: What's been really beautiful is that I think it really gives the kids a sense of liberation that they don't have to check their phone for the hundred messages that they need to respond to.

Ki Sung: And it’s not just today. It’s a regular school policy. And the upside of that, according to Principal Eric Saibel, is that kids play every day at recess.

Eric Saibel: Like here on this field of play. Experience time together if all these kids had open access to their telephones I guarantee you this would look a lot different.

Ki Sung: At Hall Middle School, Global School Play Day is working out well -- for one day. But educators here know that one day of play can only do so much for kids who might feel stress, especially from something like grades. So, this school year, they have taken the bold step of getting rid of A through F letter grades. Kids at this public school will of course be assessed according to state standards, but instead of points and letter grades, the teacher will write a detailed report.

Eric Saibel: If learning is what matters, instead of the scores, then we need to make sure we're showing the kids that we need to de-escalate the rat race to take as many AP classes as humanly, or inhumanly possible, to look as best as you can for some so-called elite school. So this is a huge cultural effort that we all have to undertake.

Ki Sung: As a parent myself, it’s hard for me to not to sign my kids up for a dizzying number of activities. There’s so much cool stuff to do out there. And if, like me, you grew up without those things, it might be that much harder to restrain yourself.

But what we’re hearing from teachers and researchers is: Let kids be kids. With other kids. It’s good for the kids to play with one another, unstructured, and it’s good for parents. It’s even good for rats!

But, it’s going to take some adjustment.

For Emily Hitchcock, a student in Ms. Irving’s class, even taking a moment to stop working to play takes getting used to.

Emily Hitchcock: Usually we do work so much that I just want to keep doing my work to get it finished.

Ki Sung: Global School Play Day was like a big pause button for everyone’s busy life. And it took some adjustment for Emily. But listen carefully and you’ll hear her talk about a brighter time in her childhood. A time in her life when she felt more able to play.

Emily Hitchcock: Like playing is so much fun. I feel like nowadays like we just completely get swept away with the Internet like we don't have a time to play. We don't play as much as we used to, and I feel like this gives us the opportunity to feel like kind of be a child again.

Ki Sung: To be a child again. Emily is 12.

Katrina Schwartz: You know, Ki, listening to this, it’s so interesting that play is so fundamental to a kid’s development. It’s like letting kids be kids.

Ki Sung: Yeah, Katrina, as a parent it’s so easy to fall into the trap of doing so much for your kids. So, it’s good to be reminded to give it a rest.

Katrina Schwartz: Yeah, and speaking of parents, I bet getting buy in for this from parents and teachers, wasn’t easy.

Ki Sung: For sure, buy-in is important for any initiative. So, if you’re looking for more information, check out to find out how to organize your community around this day of play that happens every February.

Katrina Schwartz: And if you want to make sure you don’t miss a thing from MindShift, please go to your Apple Podcast app or wherever you listen and subscribe. And then while you’re there, maybe leave us a review, give us some stars. Anything like that really helps other people find our show.

Ki Sung: MindShift is produced by me -- Ki Sung, and Katrina Schwartz.

Katrina Schwartz: Our editor is Julia Scott. Seth Samuel is our sound designer. Julie Caine is our head of podcasts, Ethan Lindsey is Executive Editor for News, and Holly Kernan is KQED’s Chief Content Officer.

Ki Sung: Special thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy and Tim and Scott Bedley of Global School Play Day. And a big thanks Eric Saibel, Kath Irving, Nathan Beach, Doug Watenpool, Emily Hitchcock and all the students at Hall Middle School for showing us how much fun play can be.


Katrina Schwartz: MindShift is a production of KQED News in San Francisco.

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