Let them play! Expert argues recess builds brains, social skills

From left: Elody Prange (8), of Phoenix, and AJ Hetzer (8), of Tempe, play with Abby Loebenberg, PhD, at Desert Marigold School in south Phoenix. Photo by Tac Coluccio.
From left: Elody Prange (8), of Phoenix, and AJ Hetzer (8), of Tempe, play with Abby Loebenberg, PhD, at Desert Marigold School in south Phoenix. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

Abby Loebenberg, PhD, is a play advocate. As an anthropologist and honors faculty fellow at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, she researches play-based learning.

Unstructured play has been marginalized in American society and is often perceived as a waste of time, says Loebenberg. With dwindling school funding, daylong, structured coursework and an emphasis on standardized testing, schools have cut recess time. Outside of school, children are often immersed in structured play—like team sports—with all the attendant rules and regulations.

Loebenberg claims this “play deprivation” has a detrimental effect on children, because unstructured play is instrumental in the development of children’s brains and their problem-solving and social skills.

Why is play so important for learning?

From an educational perspective, we know that this is the natural way that children interact. They enjoy play; it helps to engage them. If we design activities that incorporate play-like elements, children are more likely to retain information.

In schools that incorporate play into the curriculum, children in the early grades are taught language lessons through poems and songs. The alphabet song is an example of this. Playful behaviors that come naturally to children help them remember.

From the perspective of social development, play has been shown to be essential. It is the means by which children relate to one another. The more children play together, the better they [function] socially.

Why do you say that children today suffer from “play deprivation”?

At school, “teaching to the test” has led to shrinking time on the playground. A fear has developed that time outside the classroom will lead to worse grades—but the opposite is true. I just read about a Texas school that is incorporating four 15-minute recesses each day—and the children are learning so much better. The recesses are allowing them to reset their brains.

As a society, the more value we place on work, the less we value play. But evidence shows that play is extremely important, because it gives both children and adults time for positive social interaction, engages parts of the brain that are critical to the development of new neural pathways and primes our creativity.

Play deprivation is also driven by fear and a belief that something bad could happen to children. It limits their capacity for free play and exuberance. We need to allow students to challenge themselves. If a child on the playground falls and gets hurt, is this really so awful? It’s a difficult question. Do we let students experiment and fail? Or is it through failures that children create neurological pathways in their brains that allow them to become more adaptive?

How does this relate to the “free-range parenting” movement?

I suspect [the movement] is more of a reactionary response, a pushback to the overprotectiveness that one sees in the general public and in schools.

Some safety concerns are valid, of course. At the same time, we don’t do children any favors by turning them into people who can’t react to the unfamiliar. Oversheltering and overprotecting ultimately can also harm them. An overreaction to things like “stranger danger,” for instance, can limit children’s freedom. There are things children are perfectly capable of doing on their own.

Some of this is class related. Middle-class parents might be horrified not to drop off their child at school, while lower-income families’ children ride miles to school on the city bus. No one would call them “free-range parents.” They do it out of necessity.

There is also a nostalgic element, a longing for a time when kids could feel safe in the public sphere. The question is this: Is there a legitimate danger? The risk of a child getting kidnapped is relatively small.

Panicking and oversheltering our children can do more harm than good. Our “precious flowers” can be fully capable of walking to the store without being kidnapped if they are taught to be sensible about it.

You have pointed to Desert Marigold School [a Waldorf-methods charter school] in south Phoenix as one example that incorporates play-based curriculum.

It has an urban playground with no restrictions on what children can play on. They are told, “If you can get on it, you can play on it.” They are allowed to climb trees. There are no high walls.