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2016 Aug

Time to Play

“I’m Kylo Ren!” yells a blonde little girl as she runs across the metal bridge of the school  playground, chasing boys on the other side. She waves a plastic red light saber as the other kids around her shriek in fear and run away. Another boy discovers his courage and pulls a green light saber from his pocket, and runs fearlessly toward “Kylo Ren” while the other children cheer him on.

In their imaginative minds, the little blonde girl really is the villain from the newest Star Wars film, and the little boy is their new hero. The role-playing adventure continues another 20 minutes while adults keep a watchful eye nearby and chat among themselves.

For many of us, recess is a fond memory of our school days—thirty minutes of freedom from the classroom, a chance to have fun with our friends and play the games we wanted to without the teachers telling us what to do. We never realized it, but we were learning valuable life skills on the playground.

According to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), recess is “a segment of free time … in which students are given a break from instruction.” The VDOE mandates that public elementary schools provide a daily recess, giving children the chance to let out energy, get exercise, and socialize. On another level, recess is an important part of a child’s development. On the playground kids learn fundamental skills—like how to get along, solve problems, be creative, and more.

Becky Feld, assistant director at Strelitz Early Childhood Education Center, says she’s noticed some parents don’t embrace the idea of a play-based structure for their child’s early education.

“[Some] people feel that learning has to happen with books in front of [children], and when that’s not there, they get scared that their child will not be ready for kindergarten,” Becky said. But free play helps kids develop cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well being, she explains.

“When children are allowed to have undirected play, they learn how to work together. They learn how to negotiate to resolve conflict,” she said. “It’s important that they get to explore on their own.”

Teacher Kate Keiser, who teaches preschool children at Friends School of Virginia Beach, says that she spends the majority of her day allowing the kids to engage in free play.

 Her colleague, Teacher Lisa Edwards, gives her kindergarten students plenty of free playtime during the school day, and she is always impressed with what games the kids come up with.

The early education classrooms at Friends School provide several designated play areas, giving kids choices for their imaginative play. Outside the classroom, multiple grade levels often play on the playground at the same time.

“I think that’s a lot more real-world,” said Teacher Lisa, “because they play together, they figure out things, and they strategize.”

“They have to learn to play together and use their imaginations and share the things that are out there,” said Teacher Kate.

During unstructured playtime in the classrooms, Teacher Lisa says that students often try on different roles—as a mom, a teacher, or an entrepreneur. If the class has been learning about money, the kids may explore buying and selling things to each other and counting out the change. Their role-playing reinforces what they’ve learned—to the teacher’s delight. But to the kids, it’s a fun and exciting new game.

Teacher Kate says that her younger students come up with interesting concepts too, like using blocks to build a school bus. Kids almost always remember to incorporate a potty into their imaginary creations, Kate says with a chuckle. She also teaches her students to clean up as a community once playtime has ended, so they learn to work together.

“[Play] helps the children focus in the classroom and provides an outlet for energy,” said Teacher Lisa. “And it provides an opportunity for emotional vocabulary. How do you work out differences? How do you get someone to play with you? Those are things you can talk about within the classroom, but it takes place when it’s in free time because they’re putting it into practice.”

At Stratford Preschool, free play takes up the majority of the school day. While the kids spend some time in structured activities, they still have the freedom to change a story during story time or lead a game in a different direction. When they’re not doing class activities together, they are engaged with toys and activities in the classroom entirely on their own. Linda Huff, the director at Stratford, believes that unstructured play helps build autonomy, fine motor skills, and boosts creativity.

“Creative play is very important in their development,” said Linda. “We conscientiously work every day with the alphabet or numbers, and then release them to go back and play.”

She says this kind of structure encourages the kids to love both learning and play. Some days after a lot of time spent playing, students ask their teachers when they will be able to sit down and learn something again.

“It’s just a wonderful age to be working with children,” said Linda.

Nayer Taheri of Virginia Beach believes there is value in allowing kids to use their imaginations to create magic. She and her spouse, Cynthia, encourage their sons, Asher, 6, and Ari, 1, to find play in everything they do.

The first time Asher ever held a wooden stick, he used it as a wand to conduct an invisible symphony. He also creates unique games during playtime with his parents. Once at a park, Asher was soaked after playing in a puddle. After changing clothes, Asher picked up some sticks, gave one to each parent, and soon the three of them were tossing his wet shorts and catching them at the end of the stick. They played for more than an hour as passersby watched the fun.

“We allow each other in a nice environment to let the magic or logic come in like a tide,” said Nayer. “Magic comes, logic goes. Logic comes, magic goes.”

Childhood is a magical time, and playtime makes it even more wonderful. Encourage your kids to get out and play today. Give them the space to create their own ideas and games, and you’ll be surprised at the interesting activities they’ll come up with. Maybe your daughter will become a favorite super hero or a world-renowned orchestra conductor. Maybe your son will decide to play house and copy the behaviors he sees you do on a daily basis, like washing dishes or cooking a meal.

“Play doesn’t focus on outcome,” Nayer said. “Its focus is a spontaneous moment of here and now. And that focus is an essential element in a child’s development.”

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Stephanie Allen

Stephanie Allen is the Content Manager & columnist for Tidewater Family Plus. She is a proud Navy wife and mom, a writer, blogger, success coach, and the Communications and Marketing Director for the Military Spouse Advocacy Network. Follow her blog, "Choose Happy," featuring lifestyle, wellness, and career tips for do-it-all moms. 

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