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Playing for All Kinds of Possibilities

Friday, April 26, 2013

We are learning more and more about how the human brain works. In the past few weeks, I have read several articles, including this one in The New York Times from April 23, Playing for All Kinds of Possibilities, about the remarkable value of unstructured play. "Play is essential not just to individual development, but to humanity's unusual ability to inhabit, exploit and change the environment... this play-like spirit of speculation and exploration does stay with us, both as individuals and as a species. Studies suggest that free, self-directed play in safe environments enhances resilience, creativity, flexibility, social understanding, emotional and cognitive control, and resistance to stress, depression and anxiety. And we continue to explore as adults, even if not so freely. That’s how we got to the Internet, the moon, and Dr. Gopnik’s lab."

Madeline Levine's new book, Teach Your Children Well, which will be the all school read this summer, focuses on the value of unstructured play time for children and bemoans the fact that so many of our children are shuttled from one structured after school activity to another, missing out on one of the critical activities of childhood, building creativity and critical thinking skills as well as social/emotional skills through play. Our Middle School math and science teacher Kirk Bell reminded me last week of Richard Louv's book, The Last Child in the Woods, another book about the importance of opportunities for exploration and unstructured down time for children. Kirk said, "The book raises important questions, suggestions, and recent data about the importance of keeping young people (and adults) connected to nature. It highlights the relationships between a child's experience with nature and academic/emotional/social development - including ADHD and other behavioral challenges. One of the most troubling things I recently learned from the 5th grade boys in Advisory is that they typically spend four hours per evening playing Mindcraft and other online games. Without question, I support the continued online work we do with students at school. At the same time, this book has reinforced and re-framed some of my own thinking around the importance of hands-on, off-line experiences with nature. With the Farm and Garden, CDS does an incredibly wonderful job of putting preschool and elementary students in touch with nature.  I think we can do a better job of doing so at the middle school.  Off-line experiences and activities with "nature" in 5th and 6th grade Environmental Science is one important venue for this to occur."

At CDS we are fortunate to have the farm and garden and an after school program that values multi-age unstructured play. Kids have to figure out who to play with, what the game will be, what the rules are and what to do when the rules are not followed. Important work. Many of us grew up in neighborhoods where we came home from school and went outside to play, to explore and to ride bikes. My children had the same experience. This doesn't happen for many children in the Bay area. So what we do at CDS matters. As a part of our commitment to professional development for all of our teachers, CDS will host a workshop from Playworks during our August teacher work week to help us hone our skills at making recess engaging for all of our children.