I am a strong advocate for unstructured play time. As a child, we lived for recess–red rover, kickball, soccer, swings, sandbox castles. We experienced play differently in the 80’s, we were screen free and allowed to roam without a microchip. There wasn’t a name for it like “free-range kids”; we were just kids. We didn’t need adults to guide us-just fresh air, open space, a friend or two, and perhaps a little dirt now and again. Through our play we learned so many important lessons about life.
Multitudes of studies point to the power of play on child development. Some structured…some not. (Ooh, and here is one more resource that is just fabulous.) I can argue both sides of facilitated play and unstructured play, especially for a generation of children who have grown up on playdates as opposed to “hey, wanna ride bikes?” However, this week, I saw first hand the power of unstructured play and its many rewards.
Our 6th Grade trip to Tybee Island started well–we enjoyed Beach Ecology class, Shark Dissection, Maritime Forest research, Marsh Ecology (for some groups), and a Night Walk on the Beach. (If you’ve never sat alone in silence on a beach at night–I highly recommend it.) The next day, as we enjoyed our breakfast, the tide started to come in..and it kept coming. It washed up over the sidewalks, the dock, the basketball court, the campfire, and into the main classroom buildings. Luckily, it did not touch our dorms. However, the depth of the water necessitated a road closure and a power outage, canceling our morning classes. We punted a bit, met a baby alligator, learned about Herpetology and then, the best two hours of the trip came to life….
All of us marched our way to the beach with the 4-H counselors in tow, in our rain boots. No plan was laid out, no list of rules was handed down. (“Stay out of the waves”was for safety—huge riptides.) And so 69 children were released to the beach. What happened next was beautiful. Play ensued. A group went shell hunting in the naturally formed tide pools. One declared a portion of the sand bar their kingdom and worked to defend it. One child stood at the edge of the waves and stared out for a long time; when I asked how he felt he said, “very happy.” A group had a fish foam fight that was full of giggles and mud. (Do not google what is in fish foam.) The largest group, by far, was determined to build a canal from the tide pool to the ocean. They worked valiantly–digging in the sand, building a dam, pushing water to flow uphill then down to the shore. It was amazing. Not a single fight, not a single whine–teamwork, encouragement, engineering, trial and error, physical exertion all ruled the work. By the time they were finished, half the grade was involved, all were invested. Not a single adult intervened.
They had no idea they were engaged in higher order thinking. They were just “playing in the sand.” However, the lessons they learned are invaluable to them as humans. The power of collaboration, the gift of failure, the impact of encouragement, and persistence in a task, plus a healthy dose of laughter. This is what they will intrinsically take away. It was hard to fight back tears of pride as I watched them work through this hard work of play.
As we work toward rigor and excellence, we simply cannot forget the value of play in the cognitive and social development of children. It is where some of our greatest lessons will be found.