My entire educational career centered around "play." In physical education we played. It was organized and had meaningful lessons in skill and strategy, but there was also Friday Free Day when they could use the tools and skills we learned all week in their own way. The time devoted to PE was a physical benefit to students, but also had emotional and social perks too. Behavior and concentration usually improve when there is a physical outlet. There were the lessons learned about teamwork and sportsmanship. Despite the positives of regular physical activity, I struggled with a few classroom teachers who wanted to hold kids out of my class to make up work or to punish them for misdeeds. I usually won.... but in reality the goal to keep them in class was not for me, but for the student, and that teacher too. When we hold kids out of play opportunities, we take away their need for physical release and stimulation. Physical activity is a positive for the body, but also the brain. The added benefit is the lessons we learn that make us better people too.
When high stakes testing results became the focus of learning accountability for schools, the first line of defense was to increase time spent on reading and math, often sacrificing recess time or the frequency of other activities like PE, music, or art. The irony is that test scores would have been better if those things would have been left in the students' schedule because of the many mental and social benefits that occur from healthy bodies and interested minds. There are many authors and research studies out there that support this concept (and not just PE teachers). In fact an article today rolled across my Facebook feed that identified a school in Texas that tripled their recess time for elementary students and both teachers and parents have seen significant benefits to this new "break time."
"Play is not just essential for kids; it can be an important source of relaxation and stimulation for adults as well. Playing with your romantic partner, co-workers, pets, friends, and children is a sure (and fun) way to fuel your imagination, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and emotional well-being. And actively playing with your kids will not only improve your own mood and well-being, it will make your kids smarter, better adjusted, and less stressed." (From the Benefits of Play for Adults, available at HelpGuide.org)
Play has always been the place where children pretended and acted out in low stakes situations and were in control of what was happening. Play is application in action. They could use their imagination, problem solve, try new things, and work with others. They could do it themselves. This is not a scientific blog so we won't examine all the chemical, neurological, and circulatory benefits one would also gain from active play, but they do exist. Learning is so much more interesting if we can make it into some kind of game. Play is a more enjoyable form of exercise too. Play can be useful in changing behavior too. Remember when you encouraged your toddler to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane? Play is motivational and generally can take the mundane and make it more palatable.
The problem became that we seemed to have forgotten about the importance of play and its benefits as students got older and were able to sit for longer periods of time. As a result, we exchanged that play for organized, competitive sports. I worry too, that organized sports start too early for most kids. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge supporter of competitive sports as a former athlete and coach and as a current fan in the stands, but I believe there must be balance. Even highly skilled competitors benefit from "play" breaks where the stakes are low and the enjoyment is high. There is a difference between play and competition, and while both are beneficial, play is what we often cast aside as an unproductive use of our time even at an early age.
Adults could benefit from play if we allowed ourselves the time to do so. As the article noted above states, it would help our physical and emotional health, challenge us, strengthen our relationships, relieve stress, and help us continue to learn. There is something joyful about watching the smiles and laughter of children as they play. That same joy can be experienced by adults too. I have never had more fun than attending PE conferences as an adult, playing elementary games in order for us to experience the learning we would take back and share with our students. There is no doubt if we allow ourselves to experience it, play is fun for adults too.
Think back to what you used to do during "play" time as a kid. You're already smiling, right? My brother and I played (and fought) together both inside and out. One of our favorite games was to play "Spy." Now I have no idea how rural Kansas kids came to want to play that game, but we did and it was fun. So a couple of weeks ago when the grandsons were having a sleepover, I asked them if they wanted to learn how to play "Spy." Our version was indoors and really just a glorified game of "Hide and Seek," But oh the fun we had and the lessons we learned about being quiet, thoughtful about where to hide and where to look, and of course enjoying the screams and gales of laughter that occurred when we surprised each other. As adults, our play may not be the action packed games of our childhood, but we still would benefit from the time for active, enjoyable breaks from our routine.
Even in this day and age of electronic games, there is a lot of satisfaction and lessons to be learned from conquering the challenges each game presents whether it's a word game or something more addictive like Disney's Frozen Free Fall (love that game!) But in those electronic games, the one thing we are missing is the joy of play and the obvious physical benefits. The brain and stress reliving benefits are definitely there, but the physical activity level is not (unless you're bowling on the Wii). So we probably need an active play break from our electronics too.
Pets are often a source of play and relaxation for people. My son and daughter-in-law have a cat that they play with all of the time. Many of their posts to social media and even conversations involve sharing stories and pictures about playing with the cat. In fact, they often don't come just to visit us, but to play with all of our cats. So play is an important connection to our well-being and can happen with our pets as well as other humans.
Where do we find the time to play? In all honesty, we make time to do whatever we want to. Maybe we help each other clean the house or do the laundry so we can play a board game or escape to the park. Maybe we record that TV show we wanted to watch and look at it later so we can do something fun with our kids or our significant other. Maybe we just take a break from our "to do list" or the piles of things waiting for us at the job or at home and relax and recharge so we'll be more productive when we tackle those things later. What if our meetings at work, school or church had an element of play? Would those precious few minutes spent playing make the working minutes more productive? I believe it's worth a try.
As I write this, tomorrow is Friday, followed by the anticipated weekend where temperatures are supposed to be springlike here in Kansas. What a great opportunity. It is my wish that after reading this, you just might be inspired to find a few minutes to play before you head back to work on Monday. I'll sign your excuse to get out of work or household chores or whatever is on your "to do list" so you can find your joy and play for awhile. It does pay to play. Use it or lose it!