Power of Play

Posted by bhulsey - 29 February, 2012

One of my favorite Randolph treks is by the Nancy Hodges Playground on the Drake Campus.  I love to see the children at play, and am reminded that many children identify “recess” as their favorite class in school.  It’s our belief at Randolph that daily recess and physical education are critical for the growth and development of children, and it saddens me that so many schools in our nation have slashed these programs (as well as exposures in the arts) so that more time can be invested in preparation for standardized tests.

I look back on my own childhood with great happiness, and I regret that our children today are so over-scheduled with formal activities and consequently so under-engaged with opportunities for spontaneous play.  I lived in the small northwest Texas town of Pampa until I was five, and remember that we were always in the neighborhood playing our hearts out.  The only rule in my household was that I had to come home when the streetlights came on.  One day was particularly windy, and I told my mom that I didn’t want to go out and play for fear of being blown away.  Mom was wise, and she said, “Well, put these rocks in your pockets and you’ll be fine.”  And of course I was.

These days many parents with high expectations for their children hover incessantly, and therefore minimize the power of play as an opportunity for growth and development in critical areas like social intelligence, leadership, followership, and imagination and creativity.  After all, if you’ve made up some rules for a game and there’s a conflict between children without an adult referee, the participants have to decide whether or not they’re going to work it out on their own or take their ball and go home.  These moments comprise a really important part of a child’s education.

So seeing the kids playing on their own at recess every day at Randolph (we won’t cut this program, I can assure you, and I’m really happy that we added the 3rd and 4th grade playground to the Drake Campus) warms my heart, largely because I believe that these moments are critical to their growth and development.  Recess is a child’s favorite class for a reason, and we might want to find out why.  Recess may be part of the School’s hidden curriculum, but it connects to a child’s growth in important ways, and you can get a good feel for the learning climate in any school by watching the kids at play.

Lately I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules, and am now more convinced than ever that regular exercise is an essential element of cognitive function.  Medina notes that aerobic exercise at least three times a week reduces chances for Alzheimer’s by a whopping 60 percent, and the studies show that workers and students who exercise regularly in the course of a day function at a much higher level than those who don’t.

Medina’s Brain Rules makes the case that as animals we humans are wired to be on the move.  Children who are fidgety and jumpy and hard to manage (whether at school, at home, or in the car) have an understandably difficult time staying focused and seated and attentive over long stretches of the day.  This is natural.  And in fact, Medina notes that if you wanted to take the human being and put in place structures for ingrained inefficiency, you’d put him or her in a cube at work for eight hours a day, or put him or her into the traditional school schedule.

I don’t pretend we have all this worked out at Randolph, but I am proud that we integrate recess and physical education into the daily schedule, and I look forward to exploring new opportunities for building a future daily schedule around the innovative research in books like Brain Rules as we continue to chart the way forward with our strategic plan.

Topics: School Culture, learning, mission, physical education, play, Uncategorized, John Medina, Brain Rules, cognitive growth, Community of Learners, recess


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