The Power of Play

Jun 17, 2019

Listen to the podcast version here.


Play is a key ingredient to human happiness – your happiness and the happiness of your students.

But the importance of play goes far beyond happiness.  The American Association of Pediatrics affirmed that play is a vital contributor to the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of children and youth.  The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights considers play so important that they have designated it as a basic human right of all children.

Play is a natural strategy kids use to cement knowledge, practice social roles, and deepens understanding and wisdom.

But, what – exactly – is play?  Premier researcher, author, and thought leader on the subject of play, Dr. Peter Gray sets out five fundamentals that define play.  First, Dr. Gray tells us that true play is self-chosen, self-directed, and entered into willingly.  Second, play is engaged in for no other reason than the sake of play itself.  Third, play is constrained by a set of rules invented by the minds of the players.  Fourth, play takes on the characteristic of imagination – it allows for the suspension of disbelief.  Lastly, Dr. Gray lets us know that play demonstrates itself in activity and an alert, non-stressed state of mind.

Play manifests in different types – there is object play in which the focus of the play is on an object – think of a soccer ball or a banana that is used as a telephone.  Rough and tumble play allows for exploration of the physical world as well as serving as a conduit to help understand social roles and limits.  Outdoor play is considered important as it connects children and youth to the physical world (and research has shown that it has benefits in ameliorating the symptoms of ADHD).  Social play helps students develop and “road test” social constructs like friendship, sharing, and power and control.

With all this play going on, the teacher is not a passive actor.  As teachers, we encourage play, we observe and coach, and we provide a net of safety to a play world where it is acceptable to risk and fail, to test theories, and to prove out through informal learning concepts acquired from other parts of life.

Using open-ended questions, teachers open up doors of student understanding through play by being aware, present, and available to coach children and youth to develop cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally.

While it’s important to have guidelines around play, many schools and programs today have over-regulated play time and space with lists of rules that, while well-meaning, actually stifle students’ sense of agency, stimulation, development, and fun.

Teachers need to understand the importance of play and serve the students best by facilitating play and increasing the number of opportunities for students to engage in play.

Watch the video above to get the full training.





The Power of Play

Hey everyone – Rick Rood here from Transforming Teachers, Transforming Education… alright, let’s get right down to it.  Have you ever wondered what the secret to happiness is?  Have you ever wondered just what is that “secret sauce” that some people have to glide through life?

I’m here to tell you that I don’t have the definitive answer to that – if I did, I’d probably be a billionaire.  But what I will tell you is one of the secret ingredients that I am sure of?

And what if I told you that this secret ingredient not only applies to you… but it’s also SUPER IMPORTANT to your students and their sense of well-being?  What if I told you that this one ingredient is SUPER SIMPLE – in fact, it’s SO SIMPLE that it’s often dismissed or overlooked?

And what if I told you that, not only is it a key ingredient to being happy, but it’s also a NECESSARY COMPONENT of what kids need to develop – not just socially and emotionally, but physically and COGNITIVELY as well?

What if I told you that it’s part of the bedrock of learning new knowledge, and it’s also the grease that deepens understanding and wisdom?

You wanna know what it is?

It’s PLAY.

And it’s not just me that says this.  The American Association of Pediatrics in a recent position paper has affirmed that play is a significant contributor to the COGNITIVE, SOCIAL, EMOTIONAL, and PHYSICAL development of children and youth. That’s a direct quote, not mine.

PLAY is so important that the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has declared PLAY as a basic HUMAN RIGHT of all children.

So, the question then becomes – how do we, as teachers, support PLAY for our students, and how can we leverage the benefits of PLAY?

It’s important to have an understanding of what play exactly is.  So, one of our play experts, Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, he says that the definition of PLAY resides in internal motivation and attitude and it’s not really about any overt or specific behavior.  According to Gray’s observations and research, there are five fundamentals that define play. 

So, first off, play is self-directed and self-chosen.  It’s an activity that’s entered into willingly with the obverse also being true – players can choose when they want to stop playing.

Secondly, PLAY is engaged in for the sake of PLAY itself.  While there may be an external end-goal, PLAY is not concerned with taking the shortest most efficient route to that goal.  The psychological payoff for PLAY isn’t about a goal at all – it’s about engaging in PLAY itself.

Third, Dr. Gray points out that PLAY is constrained by rules – not the rules of physics or the even the rules of any institution, sometimes not even the rules of common sense but, really PLAY is constrained by rules of the mind, invented by the mind – and tacitly agreed upon if more than one person is involved in the play.

Fourth, PLAY has a characteristic or quality of imagination or non-reality.  For instance – to ride a horse in real life – you would need a horse.  But when you’re playing, this requirement is waived.  The human ability to create fictional worlds with invented rules can be seen in children as young as two.

Lastly, Dr. Gray proposes that PLAY requires an ACTIVE, alert state of mind, but not one that becomes stressed.  Play is active – it is not just sitting back and absorbing outside stimuli – it’s active participation.  It’s non-stressful because it isn’t guided by outside goals and demands, it exists free of drives and pressures that could create stress.

So, now that we know a little about the characteristics of PLAY, let’s take a look at some of the different types of play and see where they fit in the educational picture for the whole child.

There is what we call OBJECT play.  This is pretty much what it sounds like.  It happens when we interact with an object – either to experience it in a sensorimotor way – or think about playing around with a soccer ball and experimenting with new and unique ways to dribble it – or when we use objects as symbols – like using a banana for a telephone or a random stick as a gun or sword.  Object play helps develop large and fine motor skills, it facilitates an intuitive exploration of physics and other observational sciences, and it fosters higher-level representational thought.

Another type of play is physical play or what may be called rough-and-tumble play.  This type of play can be observed in challenging one’s physical abilities, maybe on the play structure, or perhaps through tumbling.  It can also involve play-fighting.

A lot of teachers cringe over this type of play, we have been conditioned to – at all costs – keep kids safe above all else.  However, I think we’ve been doing it all wrong on this account.  PHYSICAL or rough-and-tumble play is exactly the type of play where developing bodies learn to manage risk and explore the full range of movement that their bodies are capable of.  In fact, studies have shown that because we’ve cracked down on this type of play, kids, as they grow, they’re more susceptible to injuries precisely because they haven’t been able to learn through play how to manage physical risks and pay attention to messages from their own body.

Rough-and-tumble play, all but outlawed on school grounds these days, actually teaches social/emotional skills in a safe, play-based environment – things like communication, negotiation, and emotional intelligence; It encourages risk-taking and develops the acquisition and development of empathy.  Recently, the schools of the United Kingdom have changed their stance on physical play. They recognize its importance, releasing a statement that now their goal is “not to eliminate risk”.

Then there is the category of OUTDOOR PLAY.  Outdoor play is important as it has been shown to be key to improving the integration of sensory skills.  This, alone, should make recess a key and indispensable part of each student’s school day.  Now, recent research has also shown that symptoms and outward expressions of ADHD are dramatically reduced when children and youth spend significant time in green outdoor settings throughout the day.

Now, if all this weren’t enough, there is the aspect of SOCIAL PLAY.  Play is one of the ways children learn to develop healthily along social/emotional scale.  Scientists tracked the social aspect of play from solitary play to parallel play – where children play alongside each other, learning and mimicking each other – but not actually playing TOGETHER, to the most advanced level of social play – which is COOPERATIVE PLAY.

In the much safer environment of play, children and youth are able to try on personas, they are able to experiment with how social customs and mores work, and they’re able to develop social and emotional strategies that help them grow and function.  You remember when we talked about the aspect of play that was rooted in NON-REALITY?  Social play along these lines allow children of all developmental levels to learn experientially as to what works and what doesn’t socially – in an arena that has a lower stress level than “real life” because it isn’t tied to any specific outcome or object except the play itself.

As teachers, here is a huge opportunity – not to interrupt play and make it not play by interfering, but, rather, to serve as a reflection coach to children and youth and have them experiment to find their own answers to social and emotional questions. 

The role of the teacher when it comes to the play of children and youth is more of an outside observer-slash-reflection partner-slash coach.  First off, it’s important for us to be there for the students’ emotional safety, being vigilant for bullying and keeping the norm of the social-emotional safety net.  However, in our role as the safety-keeper, we also must have a deeper understanding of allowable risk-taking in social-emotional settings – remember that tenet of play we talked about that stipulates the fantasy factor of play – sometimes children and youth will veer toward what looks like emotional riskiness, when, in fact, it’s actually part of the play.  As you have more experience in observing and coaching play, you’ll develop a feel for when emotional safety is actually being threatened, and when it’s just a part of the playing.  Even quickly – and unobtrusively as possible – just checking in with the play participants with something like “I heard some raised voices – is everything OK?” That can settle the matter right there.  Remember, one of the benefits of play is the ability to take risks within a safer setting than “real life”.  So, in short, be on the lookout for social-emotional safety, but don’t cut off students’ ability to take risks and develop their social-emotional learning muscle.

Secondly, maybe most importantly, the teacher’s role as an observational mentor or coach comes into play.  One of the traits of an experienced coach is to help the coachee reflect and arrive at their own conclusions and thought transformations.  Now as teachers, often we just want to jump into situations, and we want to “fix” things for our students.  We have this urge around play-coaching, but we need to remember that our students are using this play experience to grow and mature.  So, we serve as guides – when we approach things too didactically, it tends to backfire.  If, after observing a student’s play, we come in and tell that student “see, this is what it all means, and you shouldn’t act like that” or the equivalent – we’ve basically just cut all communication with the student and have shut down their desire and ability to think for themselves.  It’s much better to take an approach that asks the student questions.

Much in line with the Socratic method, asking open-ended questions that has the student reflecting on their own experience is a much more valuable driver of social-emotional growth than is top-down “here’s what it all means” kind of remarks.  Yes, your student will probably listen to you… but in doing so, they will have stopped using their own sense of internal inquiry and have missed a chance to strengthen their own social-emotional development.

Remember, your role as a guide is to open up doors for your students so that they can walk through them.  The more you use your experience to guide students to their own understandings and their own conclusions, the greater the impact you have on their social-emotional development.

One of the major problems that PLAY faces today is that educators put too many restrictions on students’ play.  Now, this is going to sound like a total rebel position, but, really, I am disheartened when I see what is going on in schools and afterschool programs today.

Nowadays it seems like every school or program I talk to has a list about a mile long of DON’Ts when it comes to play.  Here are some ACTUAL rules that I’ve run across in the past few years:

Don’t run on the concrete

No throwing balls except on the grass

No pretend gun play

No chasing games

Go down the slide only… and only feet first

No play fighting

No touching others

Really… and there’s more!  I won’t go into them, because I feel like I could do a comedy routine just on these ones alone!  No running on the blacktop – or balls?  How do you play basketball?  With a pretend ball and make sure everyone walks and no one touches each other?  Or maybe this school has invented a basketball court on the grass.  Oh, wait, no, they haven’t.

No touching others?  This sends a really bad message to our young kids.  It tells them that all touching is bad or somehow verboten… when pediatric experts have confirmed through research that touch is absolutely necessary for proper physical, social, and emotional growth and development – we’re going and telling kids just the opposite.

No play fighting?  We’ve already covered this one… we know it’s important in developing negotiating skills, empathy, and informs appropriate risk-taking.

And as for going down the slide only… I’ll just refer you to a book that I absolutely LOVE by parent educator Heather Shumaker – in fact I’ll put a link to it in the description below… the book is called “It’s OK To Go Up The Slide and Other Renegade Rules”.  It’s really a call to sanity in today’s over-sensitized schoolyards.

Look… I get the whole threat of lawsuits and such in today’s society.  America has become overly litigious, and it’s the children and youth who are suffering.

My recommendation… always err on the side of kids’ play.  If you’re like many teachers today, you might face opposition from your principal or director… but then educate yourself further about play and become a play advocate.

In fact, the US Play Coalition has a website and an annual conference dedicated to understanding the importance of play and advocating for a greater understanding of the benefits of play.

We’ve covered a lot today – we’ve talked the whole time about play – looking at what IS play, exactly.  We looked at Dr. Peter Gray’s five qualities of what makes play, play.  And we also took an overview of different types of play.

What you should be coming away with today is a renewed understanding of the importance of play and what our role as teachers should be in terms of facilitating play and providing opportunities.  Feel free to ask questions here in the group or start a conversation of your own about why you think play is important.

And as you head out to PLAY this week, always keep in mind:

What you do is important.

How you show up for your students matters.

And together, we’re transforming education.

Now get out there and PLAY!

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