Why the Playground is an Important Classroom

The best new restaurant in town is run by seven-year-olds.

A group of Grade 2 students recently opened a “sushi bar” on the playground at recess. Their unique spin on sushi – no raw fish and rice, just materials they found outside – was a hit! Using the playground as their open-air prep station, they made and rolled their sushi and served a long line-up of students and teachers eager to buy their “food”.

“I was amazed by their creativity. I watched the students work together to create something from nothing but their imaginations and materials they found on the ground,” says Mrs. Margaret Lincoln, program specialist at the SMUS Junior School.

It’s moments like these that capture how important it is for children to play.

Why Play?

There’s a reason that, “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten,” is a popular expression. Those lessons about how to live – play fair, share everything, put things back where you found them – are rooted in skills we all learn through play at a very young age. They’re lessons that extend beyond a classroom. They prepare us to be good people.

“Play gives young children the chance to gain skills that are hard to develop in purely academic settings,” Margaret says. “Play is a perfect experience where students can grow their social and emotional skills through curiosity, creativity, cooperation and critical-thinking.”

Schools giving students time to play is more important now than ever before. Research shows that while the last generation of children spent a lot of their out-of-school time playing, many of today’s children spend more of their free time sitting idle on electronic devices. Because we know the value of play we ensure to embed play throughout the school day for Junior School students.

Playing with Purpose

Most parents know that play is important though it’s not always easy to deconstruct play and articulate the benefits as it’s happening. But when you watch children play on a playground you can see the learning taking place.

Every time a child tries to shoot a ball through a basketball hoop they’re incidentally learning about math and physics concepts. Through cause and effect, they adjust their position and their throw in a way that gives them a fun, concrete experience to learn an academic concept.

Schools make a lot of conscious choices around play. Even at recess, which is unstructured free time, there is intentional thought around the equipment and items students can access.

Beyond developing physical skills like balance and motor coordination, our play structures give students opportunities to learn through observation. The first time students anticipate crossing the monkey bars, for example, they usually first observe how their classmates do it before attempting it themselves.

There are a wide variety of options for students at recess to meet the needs of all learners. They have the open grass field, paved surfaces and garden beds to play. They even have quiet areas if they want to read or draw outdoors. And the recent installation of the well-equipped natural outdoor play space has been a popular spot for students who are curious about nature.

When you walk into a school that values play you can see how it makes learning in the classroom more meaningful.

From the Playground to the Classroom

Bringing the fun and skill-building of play into the classroom is a big part of what we do at the Junior School. As we prioritize academics, we continue to understand that for children of this age play is a vehicle for learning. So we set up conditions for learning to happen. We let their natural curiosities and interests lead where we take lessons.

A child recently brought a snail inside that she found on the playground. The students were fascinated by it and they wanted to know more about snails so we brought snails into the lesson plan. The students started off by learning about what snails eat and where they live. They researched the basic needs of living things. They worked together to build snail playgrounds out of natural materials and made predictions about the snails’ behaviour and how fast they could move.

The curriculum outlined that the students needed to learn about living things. Their sense of curiosity and wonder, their creativity and critical-thinking skills led discussions and their learning down a path that appeared because of play.

As our Junior School is inspired by a Reggio and inquiry-based approach, we put emphasis on intentionally creating the right environments in which students can learn. Providing students with a variety of material items they can play with and explore is also important. That’s why our Imagination Lab is like an indoor playground. It’s a space intentionally designed to nurture children’s wonder, imagination and curiosity. We stocked it with an abundance of material items – bottle caps, fabric, feathers, wire, spools – loose parts that can become anything in a child’s mind.

The Academics of Play

The prefrontal cortex in the brain is responsible for planning and moderating behaviour, decision-making and personality expression – also known as executive functions. Executive functions are one’s ability to determine such things as good and bad, future consequences of current activities and predictions of outcomes. – www.neuropsychotherapist.com

“One of our jobs as teachers is helping to develop and support executive functioning skills in students,” Margaret says. “Research tells us that the one of the best ways to prepare a child’s brain for honing those skills in adolescence and adulthood is by playing at a young age. The experiences they get through play help them learn how to solve problems and regulate their emotions.”

How children play (and how often children play) when they’re five years old can have a lasting impact after their schooling. Play supports the development of the skills that are sought-after in the workplace today – creativity, critical thinking, cooperation. You’ll often hear successful entrepreneurs talk about how their learning was ignited by following a passion or interest. These are people who thought differently – critically and creatively.

“We need to give students the experiences that help foster this type of thinking,” Margaret says.

Even universities recognize this and are making changes. Mitchel Resnick at MIT heads up the Lifelong Kindergarten group for students at the prestigious university: “In the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten … our ultimate goal is a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities.”

It’s undeniable that play is a necessary part of childhood that has lasting impacts the rest of children’s lives. That’s why when play is embedded in a school’s culture and educational philosophy it helps instill in students a love of learning.

The beauty of the playground is it offers limitless possibilities. One day it’s a sushi restaurant and the next day it’s a basketball court.

“Play is the most natural and innate activity children can do,” Margaret says. “And I’m very thankful that I get to witness this joy. Each day I watch students have fun through play, and I watch them grow and learn with everything they do on the playground.”

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Kyle Slavin
Kyle Slavin is the school's storyteller. Through words and photos, he shares with the community all the amazing things that happen on campus.

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