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Level the playing field with the playing field

A club focused on play is helping students develop their interpersonal skills, expand their social circles and create a more welcoming school climate.

6 min read


Level the playing field with the playing field


When students get a chance to play, research shows, they are refreshed, better focused, more on task and less disruptive at school.


This really is no surprise, is it? Aren’t we adults more on task and refreshed, when we joke with co-workers or walk to the water cooler (again) (and perhaps again), before eventually getting down to work? 

The thing that makes playtime at school so important is not that it makes kids better students. It’s that it makes them something other than students. It makes them into young people who are interesting, capable, and appreciated, whether or not they’re acing school. That is extremely valuable, especially for the strugglers. 

So much of childhood has been taken over by school and adult-led activities. A 2004 University of Michigan study — the most recent we could find — calculated that between school and homework, kids were spending 7.5 hours more a week on academics than they were 20 years earlier. That’s equivalent to adding a full extra day to the workweek. While coronavirus has thrown all this up in the air, parents and educators worried about “lost learning time” may feel that only more desk time makes sense when kids return to school.

But the most crucial lessons that kids learn this coming year may be those they learn in play — how to make something happen, solve problems, and especially, how to make friends. Once you have friends, you’re going to have a better life at school and beyond. School becomes a place where someone you like also likes you. That’s not just pleasant, especially after the social isolation of the pandemic. It’s crucial. 

Let kids play

The most effective variable in reducing the education gap between rich and poor, several studies have shown, is what’s called “school climate.” Do you feel welcome in school? Is this a place where people care about you? A school where friends await is a school where all kids can succeed. 

Two Long Island University Researchers, professors Lynn E. Cohen and Heather Macpherson Parrott, watched friend-building in action at an elementary school on Long Island. Before the pandemic, they spent nine weeks studying the school’s Let Grow Play Club. 

The what? 

Play Club is a free before or after-school program where kids of all ages (usually kindergarten thru fifth grade) get free time in the schoolyard or gym to, yes, play. Some adults are there, in case of the rare emergency, but they’re more akin to lifeguards. They don’t organize students’ games or resolve their arguments. The adults leave it to the kids to figure out what to do, how to do it, and with whom — the building blocks of friendship. 

It’s not recess

This particular Play Club was held for an hour every Friday before school. It was so oversubscribed that the 100 participants were chosen by lottery. For their study published in School Community Journal, Cohen and Parrott interviewed six teachers who supervised the Club, all of whom “noted the importance of students being given time and space to work through problems on their own, without adult intervention.” Doing so the kids developed interpersonal skills that the teachers felt were not being developed in the much shorter age-segregated standard school recesses.

In a study devoted to the mixed-age aspect of the Play Club, just published in the International Journal of Play, the researchers noticed the kids’ social circles expanding.

Because Play Club is at least an hour long, there’s time for the kids to “establish friendships, sometimes across grade levels, and work collaboratively,” the professors noted. And even for a kid who might not have many (or any) friends in his grade, now there’s a new crop of potential buddies. One fourth grader told the researchers, “If you don’t have a lot of friends, then Play Club’s the perfect place, because there’s a lot of people there. There’s a lot of people that like to play.”

A second grader said, “There was this friend that I never played with before and I wanted to play with her, and I tried playing with her today and she was really nice.”

A teacher new to the school said she was amazed by the school community. “The kids seem very independent, very confident, which is something that I felt I could see lacking” in other schools with less play time.

Let kids grow

Kids who lack opportunities to play don’t get the feedback that helps them learn how to make friends. ”I had one student in the beginning of the year that had a very difficult time interacting with other children,” another teacher told the researchers. “It was almost as if she had never done so before. She was extremely bossy. The other kids really shied away from her…” But thanks to Play Club, “I was just listening to her this morning, actually, and I couldn’t believe the way that she had matured socially.” While at the beginning of the year, “it was just all her needs and how to quickly meet them,” now the girl had become “almost nurturing.”

In so many children’s lives, coronavirus has taken away not just class time, but play time — time that was already evaporating in our activity-consumed culture. Making sure kids have as much chance as possible to play and make friends when school resumes will make school a better place for the bossy kids, the lonely kids, the struggling kids. All kids.

That means making school a better place, period. 

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement. Dr. Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He is a co-founder of Let Grow.

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