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As Children Return to School, A Reminder that Daily Play Makes a Measurable Difference


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Children Play Area | Image via Goric


Since the early days of one-room school houses, recess has been an important part of education. In those early times, there was often an informal period of play before and after school, in addition to a regular mid-day break. Even then, the idea of having a period of free play as something integral to a child’s education, and not a separate distraction from it, was hotly debated. Formal studies on the impact of play on childhood education and development began as far back as the 1890s. The results of those early studies, and nearly all research conducted since, has been almost uniformly unanimous: play matters.


The Benefits of Recess


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Playground Water System | Image via Goric


While education gives us the tools for a lifetime of success, play prepares us for their use. Regular free play, which is separate from organized sports or formal games led by adults, is absolutely essential to the physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development of children. Studies have repeatedly shown that a period of free play during each day improves a child’s memory and focus, increases their ability to stay on task during their studies, and is related to an increase in neural connections. Through play, children learn to explore and make sense of the world around them. They test boundaries, learn to negotiate with their peers, demonstrate leadership abilities, practice creativity, experience risk-free failure, and gain an understanding that success requires practice. It is no wonder that children given the time and space for regular free play develop better coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and the pressure to succeed as adults.


Playground Equipment Accelerates Success


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Spaghettini Play Structure | Image via Goric


Playground equipment provides a significant boost to the developmental benefits of free play. Towers and slides change a child’s perspective on the world around them. Platforms, bridges, and climbing structures are physical connectors that mirror the neural connections being made internally, which may help solidify their creation. Mechanical aspects, such as sand and water movers, along with a variety of tactile surfaces, encourage creative exploration and physical interaction. Even young minds seek novelty and modern playground equipment can provide countless hours of different approaches to play that go well beyond what can be produced in a relatively empty field. Though playground equipment may not be absolutely essential to generate the significant benefits that free play provides, the ability of playground equipment to engage young minds and bodies remains unmatched.


Recess Today, A Troubling Decline


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Children Test Taking | Image via


In 1989, the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child included free play as one of the basic rights. Article 31 declares that member nations,

“Recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.”

That same document also calls on all nations to,

“Respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life by encouraging appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.”

Clearly the debate on play seems settled and its importance fully recognized. Few people today would even think to argue that free play promotes laziness or leads to participation in criminal activities, which were actual beliefs well over a century ago. Unfortunately, knowing something is true and acting on that truth are two very different things. In America today, the childhood right of play is being diminished and even eliminated in our educational system.


In an article in a 2011 issue of the American Journal of Play, Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College noted that the time children spent in free play has been in continual decline since 1955. Safety concerns have caused parents to replace free play with adult led organized play activities, such as sports. Although beneficial, organized play and sports do not confer the same level of benefits as free play. At the same time, many schools facing tightening budgets and an increased emphasis on regular testing have counter-intuitively reduced and even eliminated recess from the day’s curriculum. It should come as no surprise that educators, parents, and children are reporting higher levels of stress, at younger ages, and an increase in behavioral and attention issues. In an effort to improve educational outcomes, it seems we may be moving backwards.


The Re-Emergence of Play, A Fight Worth Having


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Rope Tower | Image via Goric


In the Finnish school system, long recognized as one of the world’s best when it comes to creating successful and productive adults, children receive 15-minutes of free play following every 45-minute instructional session. No matter the measurement, these children consistently out perform their peers in other nations regardless of social and economic factors.


There are signs this approach is beginning to be appreciated here in America as well. Since 2010, Naperville Central High School, located in a suburb west of Chicago, begins each morning with physical education for all of its students. Fitness bikes and balls have also been added to many classrooms. Though it is still mostly organized play, and not the free play ideal, the results have been dramatic. Much like in Finland, when the math teacher notices that his students have begun to zone out, they are given what Naperville teachers are calling a “brain break,” a short burst of physical activity. For every thirty-minutes of physical activity, students have shown a 10 percent increase in problem solving. Since implementing the changes, reading scores have nearly doubled and math scores have increased by a factor of 20. These are astounding results. Though not at all surprising to anyone who understands the immense value of play.


Beyond the schoolyard, a trend called “free-range parenting,” is beginning to take hold. These parents are fighting back against local municipal laws and neighborhood association rules that require children to be supervised by adults at all times. They are collectively recognizing that despite many over-the-top and opportunistic news stories, our communities are safer today than they have been since the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is no logical reason not to let a child roam free in the community and play as they please. The benefits to children and our society as a whole far outweigh any potential risk factors.


Politicians are beginning to take notice as well. Representative Albio Sires (NJ) recently introduced H.R. 201, the Community Parks Revitalization Act (CPRA). If signed into law, this act would provide funding and guidance for the purpose of creating new parks and rehabilitating existing parks and similar recreation spaces in communities across the country. Anyone can lend support to this important legislation by clicking here to learn more and send a message of support to their own representative.


Free play deserves to be more than an aspirational right for children everywhere. It should be the reality. All of us have a responsibility to help make free play a daily occurrence in all children’s lives for the benefit of society as a whole.