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Is Free Play Essential for Learning?

The importance of recess, play, and physical education

Three years ago, I wrote a blog here at Psychology Today called "Play and the Child's Sense of Self" in which I argued for the importance of free play in the life of a child. It turns out that having ample opportunity for free play not only has psychological advantages for a child; it has educational advantages as well.

In this month's Atlantic, there is an article about how play is incorporated into the school day in Finland's schools: "How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play." In Finland, giving students the opportunity for free play is thought to be essential in helping children learn. School children in Finland are given a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. During the break, children are free to go outside to play and socialize with their classmates. Teachers in Finland find that after their breaks, students are actually more focused on their lessons.

Anthony Pelligrini, author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development, and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota has praised this approach to education for more than a decade. Pelligrini noticed that after short recesses, students appeared to be more attentive in the classroom.

The Atlantic article reports: "Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less attentive when the timing of the break was delayed— or in other words, when the lesson dragged on."

But what about winter days, when snow covers the school playground? According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be held outdoors to be beneficial. In one of his experiments at a public elementary school, "students had their recess times inside the school and the results matched those of other experiments where students took their breaks outside: After their breaks, the children were more attentive in class." It's not a matter of whether the breaks are indoors or outdoors. It's the fact that the play is free and unstructored. Kids need time to make their own choices about how they will use their recess time.

When a child is deprived of the opportunity for free creative play, there can be both psychological and educational consequences. Psychologist Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, says that when a child is restricted to goal-oriented tasks instead of being allowed to aimlessly play, the child's world is overthrown. For healthy development, Miller says that children need free play.

Faced with budget cuts, too many American schools are cutting recess, free play, and physical education, keeping their focus on traditional core subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic. This is not the best way to help children learn.

There is even research that suggests that the physical exercise children get from just walking to and from school can improve these kids' ability to focus in the classroom.

Update: Today's Washington Post article makes a similar argument for the importance of play in a child's day: "Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom."

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Marilyn Wedge is the author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids and a forthcoming book on ADHD, A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic

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