The Serious Side of Play

David Farbman, Director Gateways Center for Professional Learning

The Benefits of Play

Like most of us, I have fond memories of childhood play time. Frolicking with friends on the jungle gym, tunneling forts in the snow banks in the yard or fashioning magical worlds of “good guys” versus “bad guys”—this is the stuff of pure joy. Having the freedom to invent our own games, to let our imaginations run wild and, most of all, to do what we wanted—not what anyone else told us to do—these are the experiences that we might consider as a defining feature of childhood.

Indeed, decades of research demonstrate that play is an essential part of healthy development. The social negotiation that permeates activity on the playground and the squaring of an imagined world to the realities of time and space are skills that we boys playinghone in childhood and carry forward to become successful adults. We may associate play with being carefree and seeking no gain other than happiness, but it is also an enormously useful part of our young lives. 

Yet, the truth is that neither the idyllic picture we may hold of childhood playtime nor its more scientific cast are in ample supply for too many children today.  For starters, the overall time we allow children to play unimpeded has declined dramatically since the 1970s, the result of how the pace and patterns of our lives have changed. The opportunity for children in poverty to play in healthy and productive environments is often limited, as well. And, then, perhaps most significant, there are children for whom the very concept of play—of unstructured time to do one’s own thing, especially in social situations—can be uncomfortable and even frightening.

In cases where atypical cognitive, emotional or physical development make play itself a challenge, the role of adults is paramount in setting the conditions where play can, as we all hope, bring about the best in children. As adults, we can gently intervene when children who have difficulty reading social situations seem confused or are behaving inappropriately toward their peers. We can also teach children who may play “effectively” to be sensitive and helpful to peers for whom play is more difficult.

At Gateways, we help teachers develop strategies to make playtime a positive experience for all children.  But it is more than strategies that will get the job done. We begin by asking teachers to shed the concept of play as a time unencumbered by structures imposed by others to instead thinking of play as an opportunity for social interaction and creativity to be harnessed toward the development of skills, while retaining the potential for the experience to be joyful.  It is a tricky balance, but, when educators think seriously about play, the outcome can be powerful moments for growth.

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