By: Rebecca Wenstrom, Middle School Inclusion Specialist; Taryn Peacock, Second Grade Teacher; Julian Wilson, Assistant Teacher; and Tonia Vines, Arts Coordinator

What joyful childhood memory can you recall most clearly? When asked this question, one grown-up recalled long summer afternoons rigging a rope swing on which he and his neighbors swung into a creek. Another adult recalled long evenings playing capture-the-flag in the neighbors’ front yards up and down her block. Another describes playing dress-up imagination games with her siblings. When asked this question, adults reliably recall moments of freedom and discovery during extended periods of play. These experiences are exhilarating, creative, child-directed, unsupervised, and enormously fun. They are also, research tells us, hugely beneficial for brain development.

Psychologists like Boston College’s Peter Gray note that play, particularly child-directed play, helps children develop confidence and boundaries, learn to set expectations and follow rules, and practice negotiating outcomes with peers.

“When there is no movement, the brain literally goes to sleep.” This is the conclusion of Mary J Kawar, an Occupational Therapy specialist from El Cerrito, CA, who specializes in therapeutic programs for children with motor development challenges. Kawar notes that movement is essential in order to calibrate the human vestibular system, the special set of receptors in our inner ear responsible for balance, movement detection, and “modulating all of the various types of sensory input, including vision and hearing.” In other words, providing children opportunities to move in fact enhances their ability to learn and store new information in their memory.

Research also tells us, however, that child-directed, outdoor play is becoming scarce. Psychologists are concerned that insufficient opportunities for children to move may be contributing to a rise in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, also sees connections between lack of play and executive functioning disorders like ADHD. She explains, “With sensory systems not quite working right, [students] are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting, in order … to ‘turn their brain on.’”
When we square the research with the reality in many of our children’s lives, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of our children may be struggling through their schooling with their brains turned off. As parents and educators, it is essential that we actively plan for play to be a core component of every child’s day. We must understand how to create time and space for reasonable risk-taking and child-directed play, and be adept at building structured play-based learning opportunities into each child’s school day.

One deterrent to child-directed play is the pervasiveness of screens in children’s lives (Gray 2011), yet television and the internet are not the only culprits. Gray states, “Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.” Safety concerns lead adults to direct their children’s play, or even restrict play time (Gray 2011). Additionally, as schools responded to No Child Left Behind and increasing academic demands, “many children are given less free time and fewer physical outlets at schools,” (Ginsburg 2007). Compared to students in 1981, students in 1997 spent 18 percent more time at school and 145 percent more time doing school work (Entin 2011). The emphasis on reading and math have taken away from free play time.

Have modern students lost the joy of climbing trees and risking that highest leap off the swings in exchange for text messaging and Angry Birds? Or does our culture pressure parents and teachers to structure kids’ lives with adult-directed activities? Both things are likely true. As The Atlantic’s Esther Entin writes, “It is not that anyone set out to do away with free play time. But it’s value has not been recognized. As a result, kids’ free play time has not been protected,” (Entin 2011). Whatever the cause, at Two Rivers we believe that adults can take an active role in supporting and structuring opportunities for the healthy play our children need.

In order for students to benefit from both structured and unstructured play, teachers and parents must be aware of their role in providing opportunities for and organizing play.  Play goes beyond the playground, recess, and P.E, and should be an essential component of a child’s everyday learning, both in and outside of the classroom.  Teachers at Two Rivers have found success in facilitating healthy opportunities for play using some of the following strategies and methods:

1. Create learning environments that invite and encourage play. Setting up imagination and investigation stations will spark a child’s imagination and support them in exploring their own interests. These environments might include:

  • Imagination & Dramatic play areas
  • Manipulative/Games areas
  • Science/Discovery areas
  • Art/Craft Areas
  • Physical Play Areas


Providing varied and novel materials in these areas can help children learn and grow through play both individually and in groups. Materials should include loose parts inviting open-ended objectives that students design themselves, and empower creativity by providing children opportunities to think, plan, and do.

2. Ask questions
While it is essential that children have time to explore and design play activities independently, adults can support children’s learning by engaging in the play as curious observers. Ask exploratory questions that help extend the child’s play.  For example, if a child is playing with a truck, ask, “Where is that truck going? Why is it going there?”

3. Put play in learning
Teachers can be imaginative about how to link play activities to their curriculum.  A unit on cultivating relationships can be linked to a ball game where children shout another child’s name before throwing the ball to them. Bring manipulatives into the classroom to get your children playing with math, building their conceptual understanding while being physically active.

4. Talk to your kids about play
“Teachers can determine specific goals and outcomes they want students to achieve during play and share these with families and the students themselves” (Marlyn Rice, M.Ed). Build in time to reflect and debrief with your children about play. Ask kids what they learned from playing and how their play activities are helping them grow. Ask students to share examples of how play helps them build positive peer relationships and practice resilience and risk-taking. 

By providing these and other experiences for students to play, we empower them to become lifelong learners exploring and engaged in their world.