Each day when I pick my kids up from school, the first question I ask them is “What happened on the playground today?” As a playful spirit and former PE teacher, I am always curious about the most fun parts of the school day and what they learned from it. Growing up, I loved school. I loved learning new concepts and meeting new people, but no matter what grade I was in, recess was my favorite part of the day, then PE, and then after-school athletics as I got older. There was something about physical activity during the school day that made sitting in a desk somewhat bearable. Fast forward a couple of decades and you’ll find across the country, there is a growing trend to cut back on the amount of time children spend at recess for more serious pursuits like standardized test preparation. What happened? And if these are top-down policy changes, what can parents do to combat the fallout of this epidemic?
Schools administrators are in the difficult position of cramming as much learning into the day as possible, often at the expense of recess, “specials” (art, PE, lab, music), and extracurricular activities. According to the 2010 “State of Play,” a Gallup Poll of approximately 2,000 U.S. principals, 40% of U.S. school districts reduced or eliminated recess in order to free up more time for core academics. In fact, 20% of surveyed principals admitted to cutting recess time in exchange for preparation for yearly state mandated assessment tests. What was most fascinating was that these principals actually believed in the benefits of recess. More than 80% of principals reported that recess had a positive impact on academic achievement. Two-thirds of surveyed principals reported their students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.
If we know that play is a critical component to healthy human development, how can parents combat the inevitable reduction of play in schools across the country? I discussed this with Anna Yudina, Director of Marketing Communications for the Toy Industry Association and spokesperson for The Genius of Play. Anna has been a champion for The Genius of Play ever since the movement launched last year and had great insight into how parents can increase play at home to offset its disappearance in schools.
Amber: What are adults generally missing in regard to the importance of play?
Anna: Many adults aren’t making the positive correlation between play and its developmental benefits because they think that they’re wasting time. But play is not only fun, it’s critical for physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. The best way to teach values is through play. For example, empathy is an abstract idea for 5-year-olds. Through imaginative play with dolls and stuffed animals, 5-year-olds learn empathy and kindness, how to take care of others, and how to incorporate this new concept into their daily life. Play is a tremendous opportunity to influence how today’s kids will turn out as adults.
Amber: Why is recess important to the Genius of Play?
Anna: This is a ho topic and there's a lot of research around recess. The Genius of Play works to bring more play to each child’s life and recess is one form of play. Our communications are designed to educate parents, teachers, and caregivers around the importance of play. Advocating for recess in schools is our way of supporting the social, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal learning that happens naturally when kids play.
Amber: How can parents combat the dwindling recess time at school?
Anna: We encourage parents to allocate time for play outside of the school day -- right after school, at home, or at the park. We surveyed parents and asked what the biggest barrier to play was, and they overwhelmingly responded: “Time.” The reality we face is that American households are often filled with two exhausted parents working full-time. Adults have this notion that play has to be this elaborately planned experience, but play can happen any time and any where. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children get at least 60 minutes of play each day, but play can be broken into smaller more manageable time periods. In fact, daily activities -- like setting the table, riding in the car, sorting laundry -- can incorporate creative play. We at The Genius of Play believe that if adults are mindful, they can enjoy so many opportunities to be playful and engage with kids.
Amber: Where would the Genius of Play recommend that parents go to advocate for increased recess time at their school?
Anna: First it’s important to become informed and armed with research and facts. Look online! We recommend that parents start with our website: www.GeniusOfPlay.org, where they can view research supporting the benefits of play, expert advice and play ideas.. Second, know that you can’t do it alone. Get support from other like-minded parents. There’s real power in numbers. Once you have the facts and the support, talk with your child’s principal. Focusing your energy on reinstating or extending the current recess time is a great place to start. If you’re faced with a county-wide policy, your local school board is the best place to try to push system-wide reforms. It will take time but it’s important to be persistent and advocate for what you believe in.
Our communications are designed to educate parents, teachers, and caregivers around the importance of play.
During my interview, Anna mentioned that a “balanced diet of play” is an integral part of encouraging more playfulness in the home. Children of all ages learn to navigate their feelings and understanding of the world around them through play. It’s important for parents to introduce a variety of ways to play -- imaginative, active, co-play, and solo play -- that introduce their kids to new learning opportunities. It’s time we adults begin taking play seriously before it’s too late.
Currently, many school systems are structured in opposition to the mounting evidence that supports increased play as a part of holistic child development. Anna pointed out: “Today kids in U.S. play less than generations before -- 8 hours a week less than 20 years ago.” If play is not happening as readily at schools, parents are the key to ensuring that play happens at some point throughout the day. She continued, “It’s frustrating that we need a movement. Ideally kids would just play and we wouldn’t have this problem.”
Do you know how many minutes of recess your child gets each day? Need some supplemental play inspiration? Visit the Genius Of Play website to learn more about the research-backed initiative to increase play in the lives of millions of kids across the country.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working in edtech. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.