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Kids Shouldn’t Have to Learn to Play

It’s the first week of school, and I’m surprised. I’m surprised because the students are actually playing at recess.

I was so happy to see the cheerful chaos of free play this week. Brand new Pre-K students, four years old, were bravely climbing the rope ladder into our tree fort for the very first time. A rousing cops-and-robbers game (involving a few teachers as the villains) had students sprinting around our natural playground. Children were in the garden inspecting the overabundance of basil from last spring’s planting, and picking wildflowers.

Not a single student was choosing to opt out of play, despite the heat, humidity, bugs, and general August-in-Houston unpleasantness. How different this picture was from the first week, last year!

Last year, I was floored by the number of young students who came to us completely unable to play. When we let them out for their first long recess, it became clear that many of them had no idea what to do with themselves. Some stood, hesitant, on the edges of our field. Some followed their teachers around, begging to be let back inside. Some sat on the floor right outside the doors, just waiting to be taken back to class.

I can’t guess at the number of factors contributing to this problem, this inability to play in those to whom it should come most naturally. Excessive screen time, overscheduled extracurricular activities, childhood obesity, boring and unchallenging playground equipment—seems like there are obstacles to this crucial skill at every turn in the life of the modern child.

What changed at our school? What made this year so different than last year? Well, for one thing, we have around 100 returning students who have already bought in to our school culture, and they are setting an example for our new students. After a year of no homework (that’s right: our Lower School students don’t have homework), plenty of play breaks during the school day, and hours and hours logged in gardening classes, our veteran students spend lots of time outside, and enjoy it.

Now we have plenty of students who happily run up and down hills, climb trees, and chase butterflies. And since that’s the overwhelming attitude toward play at our school, it’s rubbing off on our new students really quickly.

Our Duty: Remind Children How to Play

We shouldn’t have to teach kids to play. They should come to school bursting with the curious minds, busy fingers, and boundless energy that our Lord gave them. But if they do come to school unwilling or unable to play, it is the job of every teacher to help. We must remind them that hills are for rolling down, fields are for exploring, and their imaginations are ready to take them on any number of wild adventures. If we can revive their instinct to play, we show them a gift first given to them by God—and there is no more important work.

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