I have many fond memories of my childhood, but the ones that are most prevalent, and arguably times when I learned about problem solving and navigating sometimes contentious social situations, are the ones when I engaged in unstructured free play with other kids from the neighborhood. I’m talking hours upon hours of time playing tag, climbing trees (and falling out of them), building forts out of found sticks, and catching frog spawn from the creek with these neighborhood children (not all of which I got along with) until the street lights came on signaling it was time to go home. There was never an adult there to mediate whose turn it was to have a go on the new roller skates some kid received as a birthday gift, or settle an argument about who was “it” for the next round of hide-and-go-seek.
Some schools have eliminated recess altogether (or shaved it down to a mere 13.5 minutes) - positing that academic minutes are more important and should take priority over free play. So why is play so crucial to a child’s development? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics' Clinical Report, in addition to being important to healthy brain and physical development, the benefits of free play include that it allows kids to use their creativity and develop their imagination, dexterity, and other strengths. It encourages kids to interact with the world around them, and teaches them to work in groups so they learn to share and resolve conflicts effectively and independently. It also helps learners practice decision-making skills and to develop social and emotional ties with others. It is important to note that this kind of play is meant to be unstructured, child-driven play. It is not the kind of play time that is totally controlled by adults and doesn't include passive play, such as sitting in front of a video game, computer, TV, or other electronic devices. Activities that often pass as play, such as organized sports, do not offer the same psychological benefits as, say, scaling a tree or pretending to govern an island in the creek.
For our Long-View learners the time spent at park is just as important as working through a string of code or grappling to revise a thesis statement in writers’ workshop. It’s sometimes messy, and I don’t mean in a muddy way after rain has fallen, (it’s that too!) but socially messy, and that’s okay! Sometimes, for an adult who is well versed in the art of negotiation and conflict resolution, stepping back and resisting the temptation to intervene when a quarrel arises or to manage their play is difficult, but if we do intervene, we are robbing them of a valuable opportunity to practice problem solving independently.
About a month ago two of our learners initiated (or rather, breathed life back into) the Long-View Olympics. A kid originated (and managed) affair with layers of complexity, thought, and planning that had gone into it. The Olympics took place daily during free time play at park. Anyone Interested could have signed up to participate in either soccer, dance, gymnastics, running races, and nature building. (If you know our Long-View learners you won’t be surprised to see nature building as an olympic event in the line-up!) If none of these choices appealed, learners could have signed up to be a bonafide judge of an event instead. What ensued over the weeks was peppered with so much more than a healthy dose of playful competition and blood pumping exercise. Learners grappled with fairness and how to effectively voice their stance or advocate for a peer, they resolved conflict rationally and effectively (most of the time), and equally important were more refreshed and ready to move on and re-engage during more structured lesson times when they returned to the learning environment at Long-View.
Giving learners freedom is obviously not the only strategy needed to create a supportive learning environment, but removing barriers is a good start. Children who are self-aware and able to understand their own emotions are more socially adept and have a greater ability to relate to others into adulthood. Long-View learners are working toward being responsible decision makers, both academically and socially. They are developing a strong social-emotional skill set and are primed for greater academic success, thanks in part to the unstructured free play time they experience at park each day.