When We Play, We Learn

“The play activity feeds a curiosity that may lead to a quest for knowledge…”

Dr. Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play

When I was homeschooled for 7th and 8th grade, I began each day by donning my straw hat and venturing out to the backyard where I would spend half an hour watering my vegetable garden. I would then set the kitchen timer for 45 minutes of piano and voice practice. By 10 AM, I was ready to launch into academic work. But the remainder of the day did not engender simply sitting at my desk; there were regular jaunts out into our backyard schoolhouse, and lessons were often punctuated by a bike ride or neighborhood walk. These interludes of activity—often outdoors—allowed me to approach writing, math, and Japanese with a clear head and heightened engagement. As it turns out, research backs this up.

“In order for children to learn, they must be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we must let them move!” So says Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist. Children, Hanscom explains, are spending most of the day sitting: in class, in the car, and at home doing homework. As a result, she and her colleagues are seeing more and more children with a weak vestibular sense (the balance sense), which is developed through vigorous movement—think swinging upside down from jungle gyms and rolling down hills. “A mature vestibular sense,” Hanscom writes, “supports attention, emotional regulation, eye muscle control, spatial awareness, and organization of the brain to support learning!” As a result of too little movement, children are increasingly being diagnosed with ADHD, in addition to sensory and motor deficits.

The rise of test-based education in the United States has been paralleled by a marked decrease in the time devoted to unstructured play. Under immense pressure to achieve higher standardized test scores, schools have squeezed recess from the schedule in order to devote more time to academics and test prep. With play relegated to lowest priority, it has become common for children to spend only 20 minutes in outdoor play over the course of a seven-hour school day. However, numerous studies have found that unstructured outdoor playtime is crucial to children’s cognitive as well as physical development.

Currently, most American students spend nearly 100% of class time sitting. Finnish schools, on the other hand, are “on the move.” For years, Finnish students have taken 15-minute breaks for every 45 minutes of academic instruction, and they spend a total of 75 minutes in recess (compared to an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.). From 2010 to 2015, 800 schools adopted “Finnish Schools on the Move,” a program designed to increase movement throughout the school day. Older students would put away their smartphones to engage their younger peers in physically active outdoor activities during breaks, while teachers were encouraged to allow students to complete classwork while standing or sitting on exercise balls instead of chairs.

Play need not take the form of another structured activity like team sports or even P.E.; Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play explains that something as simple as catching fireflies can be enormously beneficial to a child’s intellectual development: “The play activity feeds a curiosity that may lead to a quest for knowledge: Why do fireflies only appear in the summer? Why do they light up? And how? Part of the purpose of play is to extend ourselves to the next level, and catching bugs provides a great platform for that.”

Sources: “The Consequences of Forcing Young Kids to Sit Too Long in Class,” The Washington Post, 2017. “Finnish Schools Are on the Move—and America’s Need to Catch Up,” The Atlantic, 2015. “How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play,” The Atlantic, 2014. “The Children Must Play,” The New Republic, 2011. “Find and Keep,” Spirit, 2012.

Natalie McDonald
Natalie McDonald—the “happy guinea pig” who was homeschooled for 7th and 8th grade—graduated with honors from Pomona College in 2019. She continues to love learning as much as she did when studying in her backyard schoolhouse ten years ago.

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