Why We Play
One of the earliest decisions we came to when we started The Saint Constantine School was that young children should play. This sounds entirely unremarkable, but deciding that we truly meant it has shaped our school in some of the most significant of ways, setting our habits, patterns, and school days apart from many of our peer institutions.
When you say out loud, “Young children should spend much of their time playing.” no one disagrees with you. When you say, “Therefore they should do a lot less school work,” you find yourself in a much more contentious position. But our time is a zero-sum game. We cannot squeeze an infinite amount of good things into our days just because we will it. If we believe that play is truly good for children, then we have to make the time for it.
Early 20th-century educational theorist and practitioner Charlotte Mason wrote,
There is a danger in these days of much educational effort that children’s play should be crowded out [or what is the same thing] should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than about work . . . Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make.
If this was true in the days following World War I, how much more true is it now, when not only school work but digital distractions and extracurricular activities continually war for a student’s time?
Now more than ever, students are in danger of rarely engaging in truly free creative play. Following World War II, much of American education began to take on an industrial “efficiency” that had students’ school hours mimicking adult working hours. As schools grew in size and accepted government funds, a greater need for standardization and universal proofs of competency were developed, creating the massive standardized testing system that has transformed our modern schools.
Educational policy and cultural changes have come together to squeeze free time and play out of our schools. Students are reduced to 15 minutes of recess over the course of their 8 hour school day, and often come home to a couple hours of homework on top of extracurricular commitments that keep them busy until bedtime. Additionally, even when children have free time they increasingly spend it in front of a screen which does the work of creation for them and doesn’t require them to use their bodies.
We know that the very best things for young children are time with their families, free play, and sleep, and yet the school structures in which we place children are increasingly squeezing all three of these things out of the daily life of our students.
At TSCS, we followed what we knew to be true about children, even if it went against the accepted practices of elementary school today. And so we made three big decisions about the structure of our PreK-5th grade years.
Our students spend a significant amount of each day outside.
Each of the five one hour and fifteen minute periods in the day are broken up by play breaks, outside when weather permits, inside with a greater emphasis on free reading when it doesn’t. Our lunch break is 50 minutes long, with approximately 30 of those minutes being spent outside in free play.
When children are playing, they are free to roam.
We have four acres of green space with two vine covered tree-made “caves,” a garden, and Houston’s first natural playground, which includes a tree house and a slide built into a hill. There are no rules for how a child uses their time, except the overarching rules of kindness towards others and thinking through your actions. We have teachers outside with the students at all times, and younger students often check in and ask us to watch them when they try new things, but as a rule we don’t dictate what they’re doing.
We do not assign take-home homework for our students in 5th grade and below.
A block schedule and longer periods allow us plenty of time for students to both learn new material and rehearse what they’ve learned in class. Their time at home will be much more beneficially spent having dinner with their family, playing with their siblings, going to church, and going to bed early.
As Charlotte Mason insists, education is a life. A proper education will take into account the formation of the whole person and in doing so, can properly insist on the multifaceted means by which a child grows. School work is only a small part of what a child needs throughout their day. We are confident that, in taking into account the full needs of the child, their academic development will benefit as we focus on their holistic development. Free and creative play is as important to a child’s mental and emotional development as anything else we do at school, and so, we play.