What do you get when you set aside adult agendas and curricula for a day: Lord of the Flies or Phineas and Ferb? We decided to find out by participating in Global School Play Day, an international effort to revitalize play for kids.
Our students have free play every day; in fact, we use that instead of the term ‘recess’ to highlight its importance. We were not sure that we needed to dedicate an entire day to unguided play; however, we took this as an opportunity to do some learning - as an experiment. We armed ourselves with observation rubrics to the following purposes:
1. Gather information that we could share with the wider world, via this blog.
2. Create specific observations of kids for their upcoming assessment reports (grade cards)
3. Collect data to serve as grist for a debrief discussion with the kids and among the educators.
A crucial feature of learning at Sycamore is that we debrief. We reflect on what happened, what works, what doesn’t, and what it might mean.
What Happened: A full day of free play took many forms. The play was intentional, not rushed or
frenetic. Kids new they had time to sample different activities or change focus throughout the day. Some kids did one thing all day – others had a smorgasbord, moving from imaginary play to constructive play in the maker space. Some soccer-obsessed kids played soccer all day (until exhaustion took over!).
Unexpected Highlights: Many kids were more independent, not only from adults, but from each other. There was time to change established patterns and play with different groups, rotating between various activities regardless of what their usual friends did.
Challenges: Conflicts in play often arise because children disagree over the rules – whether those rules are codified in a traditional game or unspoken in imaginary play (“I’m always the mommy, so you have to be the baby”). Learning to resolve interpersonal challenges means having the time to discover and analyze what is wrong and then the space to jointly come up with a solution. All of these actions take more time than a 20-minute recess period.
What does it mean? We asked the students to reflect at the end of the day. Some of our soccer aficionados said that they were “ashamed” of themselves for not taking advantage of the opportunities to do other things. They felt like they had missed an opportunity. If given another chance at a full free play day they said that they would come with a “battle plan” for other things to do rather than default to their usual play. Self-reflection is an essential part of learning!
For the adults, the key take-away was this: we need to help less and let our students struggle more. Our 5th grade educator observed ruefully, “Kids are needy because I’ve made them need me.” A day of free play made us aware of how many little ways we micromanage the kids’ time and attention, depriving them of the opportunity to navigate challenges with creativity and build their sense of self-efficacy.
To encourage further reflection, discussion questions were sent to parents to continue the conversation at home:
1) How did you handle boredom?
2) What was fun and what was challenging about the day?
3) How did you make decisions for yourself about how to spend your time?
4) How was this different from your normal free play at school?
5) What did you learn about yourself?
6) What was your experience without adults managing your day?
Several community members shared that these questions led to engaging discussions over the dinner table. Based on our observations and reflections, we have decided that not only will we participate next year – we will institute several play days throughout the year!
We hope to see you at #GSPD2020 !
If you are interested in learning more about free play, check out the following links:
· Peter Gray’s TED talk “The Decline of Play”