How to improve the gains children make in school

I have an image in my mind of tiger cubs play wrestling with each other and I think we should apply that image to schools.

When tiger cubs roll and pounce and snarl and mouth each other and wrap their arms around each others’ necks everyone knows that they are playing. They are programmed to play this way and in fact all mammal youth are programmed the same way. Cats play. Dogs play. Horses play. Play is what youth is programmed to do. This applies to human youth as well, but unfortunately the education establishment acts as though this were not true.

Play serves the function of preparing the young to be successful adults. As they play human children instinctively practice a myriad of skills – among these are negotiating with others, taking turns, asserting one’s ideas, developing physical strength and agility, exploring space, exploring leadership,exploring one’s inner thoughts,exploring physics and geometry and mathematics, developing the imagination.

In recent decades, schools in the US have stripped play from the work days of children. Kindergartens used to be shrines to play – there were unit blocks, sand boxes, easels and puzzles and dramatic play areas and finger paint. As they do in Finland and China today, elementary and middle school students in the US used to go outside for several lengthy recesses each day. The purpose of the recesses was allowing children to play.

When children play they burn off a lot of energy, and they need to do this. Children are energy machines. Their little bodies explode out the door in pent-up yells and bounds when they are allowed out of the school building for play. If they are not allowed to play all the energy that rises up in them during the long hours of a school day remains bottled inside – or erupts if they can’t control it – and gradually debilitates them. Focus is lost, arguments boil over, tears fall, teachers become flustered, curriculum is wasted. This is true for kindergarteners and it is also true for many middle school students.

In an era when fiscal conservatism rules many decisions and school budgets are so tight that programming is often bare bones, putting play back into the curriculum would prove cost effective. First of all, blocks and sand tables and paints are cheaper than textbooks, more intrinsically appealing to children, and infinitely more effective in teaching when in the classrooms of well-trained teachers. Second, it costs very little money to include recess in the school day.

We are in effect squandering resources when we ignore the physical necessity of providing children with blocks of time for them to use their energy. A chunk of all the money spent on developing the Common Core and buying textbooks and assessments from Pearson and other companies goes down the drain if children are melting down – either overtly or silently – rather than benefiting from what we are teaching.

We need to push back against the anxious, neurotic voices that want us to steal more and more minutes from the play lives of our children’s school days and turn them into ‘teaching’ minutes. Such minutes are wasted. Children can’t spend a day in school without play. They are not programmed that way. Remember the tiger cubs, our fellow mammals, and let’s learn from their example. We cannot subvert nature.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.