When I was a kid, my friends and I dragged a picnic table over to the swing set at a nearby park after school. In turn, we climbed up on the table, tucked the wooden seat beneath us, stood on tiptoes at the rear edge of the tabletop, and leaning as far back as we could– jumped. I ended my ride by leaping from the swing at the peak of a forward arc. I felt as if I were flying.
There was no adult supervision. The playground equipment was made of iron, wood, and steel. Was the play of my childhood a manifestation of ignorance, irresponsible parents, or insanity? Are we better off today with homework, soccer practice, and video games? Are safer playgrounds better playgrounds? What role, if any, ought there to be for schools in providing opportunities for play?
Some of the value in the play of my youth grew out of the risk that came with the fact that it was unsupervised. We kids were in charge of our play. I had the opportunity to decide what seemed an acceptable risk. I was willing to swing from the picnic table. I was not willing to climb outside the enclosed platform at the top of the firefighter’s pole. I was willing to climb trees but embraced a rule passed down to me by my father. I maintained three points of contact at all times (two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand).
Almost certainly neither my friends nor I were as cautious as our parents would have wanted us to be.
Some of the value of this play derived from the independence and creativity of it. We decided what was fun to do and how to make it happen. We played half ball in a narrow alley with part of a tennis ball and a broomstick. Where the ball rebounded determined its value (single, double, triple, homerun). We invented games and rules that I still remember forty years later. We were neither dependent upon nor constrained by adult ideas about what our play ought to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not contending that any risk is worth taking. Only that we have, in the name of safety, too often reduced play to activities that happen indoors, are solitary, are structured, are supervised, or are screen oriented. A world without such activities would be a poorer place. However, a pendulum swing toward the play of my youth would afford children an opportunity for better balanced, enriched, and healthier lives.
There is a degree to which decisions about how much independence and risk is appropriate is individual. There is no one right answer for all children and parents. However, such an argument is too often a rationale for adhering to the status quo. I contend (with all of the error of a generalization) that we have grown too committed to safety and have sacrificed too many aspects of play that are beneficial for the growth and development of children.
Most children spend a significant fraction of their lives at school. Schools are obliged not only to attend to academic and intellectual skills but to the social and emotional development of their students. At school the impetus away from play as a context for growth and learning is often predicated upon a false dichotomy between play and work.
Play is devalued. Why should valuable time be invested in play? I can’t help but believe that some of the impetus for excising art and music from school curricula when money is tight is rooted in this same false sensibility.
Play, like art and music, can be a powerful context for social and emotional development, as well as for the development of academic skills and intellectual abilities. Recess at Friends School Haverford is carefully supervised, but not intruded upon by staff. Outdoor building blocks, sticks, and leaves are available to students as props and tools for their freely chosen endeavors. An outdoor classroom has recently been reinvented as a skating rink. In the classroom, play is third grade students animating famous African Americans in a mock wax museum complete with costumes, written reports, and visuals. Play is fifth grade students in science classes planning and executing a simulated space flight to Mars.
Getting this right is important. Children who test their mettle in a variety of play contexts have meaningful opportunities to learn to be cooperative, self-aware, creative, and critical thinkers. Perhaps most importantly they are happy to know the joy of flight.
Michael Zimmerman is head of school at Friends School Haverford, a nursery school through eighth grade just outside of Philadelphia.