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Viewpoints: Free play is powerful

November 17, 2015 Phil McRae, ATA Executive Staff Officer

Close your eyes and think back to a time when you were engaged in some kind of playful activity. When I do this, what first comes to mind is how much fun it was to be fully immersed in the often spontaneous moments. Play at its essence is about having fun. It is also truly "free" when there are no parents or guardians hovering alongside, coaches intervening, umpires adjudicating, teachers directing or rule books guiding.

In her article, "The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning," child psychologist Dr. Rachel White outlines six distinct characteristics of play for children.

1. Play is pleasurable. Children must enjoy the activity or it is not play.

2. Play is intrinsically motivated. Children engage in play simply for the satisfaction the behaviour itself brings.

3. Play is process oriented. When children play, the means are more important than the ends.

4. Play is freely chosen. It is spontaneous and voluntary. If a child is pressured, [she/he] will likely not think of the activity as play.

5. Play is actively engaged. Players must be physically and/or mentally involved in the activity.

6. Play is non-literal. It involves make-believe.

According to White, these six characteristics of play are to be found on a continuum. The more of the above six conditions of free play that are met, the more playful (and fun) the activity becomes for the child. The lesson here is that adults should let play be freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, actively engaged and often make-believe if we want it to be truly pleasurable for children.

Free play is learning

Many of life’s lessons are acquired through play, like problem-solving strategies, getting along with others through negotiation, co-operation and compromise, or even the early sparks of creativity when a sock becomes a puppet or a stick becomes a magic wand recreating the world with whatever the mind can imagine. Play especially helps to nurture creativity in children and youth, so they can meet the world inside and outside of school with their own unique curiosities and imagination. As Albert Einstein identified, play is indeed the highest form of research.

Some scientists even suggest that play builds better brains. Dr. Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge, said in an interview with National Public Radio that the "experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain … And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed."

Yet, despite this knowledge of the impact of play on learning, far too seldom are the conversations in K–12 education about play and its ability to foster creativity, the arts, talent diversity or interpersonal communicative competencies for children and youth. Unfortunately, as Harvard researcher Pasi Sahlberg suggests, the trajectory of education reform has for too long been sacrificing play for increased standardization, more frequent testing, competition and an increasingly obsessive focus on the disciplines of science, technology and math.

Free play is under siege

While we are aware of the clear benefits that develop from play, time for free play has been markedly reduced over the last three decades. In 2004, University of Michigan researchers found that, since the late 1970s, children had lost 12 hours per week of free time, including a 25 per cent decrease in play and a 50 per cent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. Meanwhile, here in our province, the Parkland Institute has found that Albertans are working longer hours and families are spending less time with their children.

Digital technologies, often sold as virtual tutors, have sadly become convenient digital baby rattles, and this has resulted in some dramatic consequences for childhood.

And as parents and policymakers look to start formal education at increasingly younger and younger ages, early learning researchers are now asking if kindergarten is in fact becoming the new first grade. A 2015 working paper entitled "Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?," by a group of University of Virginia researchers, illustrates the concerns of a shift in early learning experiences to more academic pursuits at the expense of play.

"Accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and … kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play," the paper states.

Free play is essential

The Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), which represents all of the provincial education ministers, endorses bringing play together with learning to promote creativity in future generations of children and youth. As CMEC reminds us in its statement on play, "it is considered to be so essential to healthy development that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children."

So, let’s pause in our increasingly distracted, full and busy lives and consider for a moment the power and importance of free play for children and youth. ❚

Dr. Phil McRae is a researcher and adjunct professor with the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.

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