On the Importance of Play
“Recess is fundamental to the school experience and develops lifelong skills of communication, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem-solving.”
Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle
Last week I was extremely fortunate to attend the World EduLead Conference here in Singapore. As implied by the title, the conference has a global focus, but many of the attendees were Singaporean educators and I had a chance to catch up with several teachers and administrators from my travels. I also had my dear friend, Pam Gildersleeve-Hernandez visiting so we were both able to attend the two-day congress. In addition, I signed up for a masterclass given by Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and researcher on play, that was held earlier in the week. Other presenters included multiple keynotes by Michael Fullen, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa and Howie Knoff. I intend to write a post reflecting on each of these speakers, but will begin with Pasi Sahlberg.
He is formerly a Finnish classroom teacher and now a policy expert on education systems. He has conducted research on the role of play and is currently working within the Australian system on educational policy issues and best practices. The Monday masterclass was titled Curiosity, Creativity, and Play. The slide images below are from his shared deck, available via his website HERE.
The masterclass consisted of a full day of learning with about 200 other people. The day was broken down into 4 sessions and began with an analysis of the state of play. Play combines problem solving, creativity, risk-taking, curiosity, joy, imagination, collaboration, and executive functions. Executive functions are how the brain organizes, plans, and completes tasks. More specifically, they are responsible for our working memories, regulation of emotions and self-monitoring, and staying focussed on goals. These skills continue to evolve over a lifetime, but are critically developed in one’s youth. Educational institutions must allow for development of these skills within the system, but more often than not, policies are put in place that interfere with the process.
According to Sahlberg, since play contributes so much to the overall wellbeing of an individual, there must be time within the day for children to experience it. He emphasized the importance of “unstructured” play whereby kids are given the opportunity to explore all of the attributes of play without adult interference or other expectations. Schools tend to organize the day around intense, very structured learning periods which do not afford much time for play.
He points to the growing length of the school day around the world as an example. Children in many countries have a full day at school and then are expected to participate in after school structured activities like tutorials, homework, and clubs or sports. He believes that structured play offers opportunities for growth, but states that unstructured play is critical.
Why is time for play left out of discussions about school schedules? Of course, we all know the answer . . .
He asked that we also consider parent views.
These observations resonated with all of us. Despite coming from many educational systems around the world, there was a consensus in the room that these statements are sadly true. I’ve experienced this thinking in the schools I have be involved with as well as in casual conversations outside of an academic setting. One of my most important sources turns out to be conversations I’ve had with Grab (Uber) drivers. I use Grab quite often for long distance journeys and the drivers tend to be older men. Casual conversations begin and inevitably turn to where I’m from and why I’m in Singapore. I give them my standard 30-second response that includes key words and phrases like teaching, learning, research, and creative use of games.
At that point they ask me to clarify a bit and I usually add that I am investigating if and how games and game play can be used to better support critical and creative thinking within traditional lessons and time constraints. This sparks a lively response about the education system in Singapore whereby they tell me about their experiences in school and their children’s experience. I get an earful for the rest of my journey.
Each driver reinforced Sahlberg’s claims. There is too much pressure on children to perform to adult expectations. Kids do not know much about the world outside of school. This is especially true in Singapore where outdoor experiences are limited compared to U.S. school children. Although schools here do well in taking kids on field trips, weather limits extended time outdoors. There are no mountains to explore, few farms to investigate, and despite being on an island, water sports and associated activities are not common.
The drivers also pointed the accusatory finger at parent attitudes to learning and offered reasons why they place so much pressure on their kids to do well. Much of it is culturally embedded. Children are expected to take care of their parents when they get old, which means by living in Singapore they will need a great deal of money. Pressure is placed on kids to study to be able to get into and graduate from the “right” university in order to benefit from a well-paying job. Subsequently, many careers are downplayed, especially those commonly associated with creativity and problem-solving. The Arts in particular are not associated with career path opportunities.
On the role of media and technology, Sahlberg asked us to consider the research that suggests, among other things, that 98% of kids under 8 have access to a mobile device and 95% of teens have a smartphone. He pointed to one study that associated hours of screen time with lower well-being in children and another that demonstrated that high users show less self-control, curiosity, and emotional stability. He emphasized the ample evidence showing the negative effect of too much screen time on the developmental performance of very young children. You can check out his slides for specific references.
One especially thought-provoking observation concerned the “new digital divide” whereby teens from lower income households experience over 25% more screen time than teens from higher income households. The study he referenced cautioned that one conclusion that could be drawn is that children from wealthier families will experience more “downtime” and opportunities for human interaction which may lead to improved cognitive functioning. The lesson learned here is that use of technology in class needs to support instructional goals and teachers need to think deeply about the “why” for tech integration. Despite what a few folks think about my use of technology, I don’t use it all day every day and have come to the realization over the years that in every unit students need sensory experiences and opportunities for personal growth, be it in art, music, design, or performance.
In the second session we examined the school day around the world. Sahlberg shared a typical primary school day schedule that looked a great deal like the U.S. model.
He then shared a Finnish 5th grader’s schedule and asked if anyone taught within a similar schedule. No one raised a hand. Finnish students are bilingual and he heavily promoted the concept of a universal requirement for students to learn a second language as it directly benefits cognitive functioning. He even told us a joke about how to identify an American — they only know one language. Painfully true.
The schedule emphasizes the importance of creating opportunities for unstructured play and interaction. In the Finnish schedule, there are breaks after every learning session. During this time kids have a chance to engage their brains in other activities. Conversations arise. Kids play games like ping pong or play a tune on the school piano. They eat something, reflect on their day, chat about the upcoming weekend, or just pause a moment and take a few deep breaths. Teachers are expected to do the same. They grab a cuppa, use the bathroom, and connect with another teachers on a human or professional level. For more insight on the Finnish system, visit this blog of a Fulbright colleague conducting research there.
This was a major takeaway for me. Despite the somewhat rigid system in place here in Singapore, there are opportunities for students to engage with each other within the school day. I think about my rather bland campus back home and on the limitations we place on our students and staff, denying them of opportunities to interact like those mentioned above. We need to give our kids permission to safely explore what they are curious about and to take risks in order to grow. Let’s encourage them to use their imagination, solve problems on their own, and to experience the joy in learning something new. We need to fill our empty and sterile campuses with objects and activities that spark creativity and encourage collaboration and positive self-expression.
We were then asked to play devil’s advocate and, as a table group, critique the inclusion of unstructured play within a school setting. Our group played along a little too well and came up with several reasons why this won’t work in our school systems.
Time constraints. This is especially true in Singapore and is the number one obstacle to getting teachers on board with using games. Many teachers only see students twice a week for as short as 40-minutes at a time. There is not much room to open up lessons in a way that promotes critical discussion and extend thinking.
Students don’t know how/why to play. We have created a system that stifles play and discourages the freedom to be kids. I’ve experienced this at home when I introduce a game. Students are extremely tentative, sometimes to the point of being fearful of making a mistake. We need to teach kids how to play and give them permission.
Mandated learning “formulas” that we are required to use. There are specific writing models to follow and restrictive, hyper-focused outcomes expected that target skills and concepts in a way that diminishes creative and innovative responses.
Parent objection. This was mentioned as a barrier earlier and is ever present here. Time for play does not fit into any equation most parents will support. Especially when so many require and pay good money for their kids to take after school tutorials.
There is a societal disconnect between play and learning. Too many want to separate the two and fail to consider the deep learning and social and emotional skills that are developed through play. Teachers who use games for learning need to correct this misunderstanding. Ask students to reflect on their learning through game play. Yes, they will be able to tell you what they learned through the game, but it is even more important that be be able to understand why they played to learn.
The game is then recognized as what it truly is — a tool or a strategy to generate understanding and meaning. Kids responding at home to the parent question “what did you do in school today,” should not respond with “we played games”. Instead, they should be able to share their learning experience. Administrators that are leary of the concept can benefit from the same approach.
The second half of the day was devoted to looking at how we can create opportunities for play and especially “deeper” play. Play can take many forms.
The richness and depth of play can be measured using multiple criteria. Lessons can also be developed with these criteria in mind.
We concluded the day with a reminder of the true power of play in developing the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical lives of children. We must expand our efforts to include play throughout the school day and to support the use of innovative activities that enrich the lives of not only our students, but for ourselves. We are too often stressed, overburdened, disillusioned, and constrained within the systems we work in. It’s time to give play a chance.