Play is the surprisingly easy cure to your students’ deepest needs

November 22, 2021

Originally published in District Administration, 24 September 2021

Our students are happier, less stressed, less isolated, more motivated and are building stronger relationships.

So, your school is once again face-to-face. Behind all the new safety measures, meetings, adapted lesson plans, and added stress—all you want deep down is to help students recover from what was likely the most challenging year of their lives and get back on a healthy path socially, emotionally and academically.

How in the world are you going to begin to tackle such an enormous feat? Before the pandemic even began, stakeholders sounded the alarm about the declines in children’s emotional health and social skills.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, children have been facing declines in other aspects of life as well. Most of our students have experienced added stress, an extreme lack of peer interaction, loss of typical childhood experiences, isolation and a lack of motivation.

For such a myriad of problems, surely the solutions are wide-ranging, diverse, costly and difficult to attain, right? Wrong. Our school district (and several others around the country) have found the surprising silver bullet that we never dreamed would change things so dramatically, and yet we can’t argue with the results we’re seeing.

That answer? Unstructured child-driven play. Seriously? Yes! Stay with me.

Enter, Play Club

Two years ago, I slowly began to recognize the power of play after getting to know the director of the US Play Coalition by the sheer luck of having her daughter in my fourth-grade class. I began to understand play as seriously powerful in transforming a child.

I attended the Play Coalition’s international conference, where I had the opportunity to meet with play advocates from around the world. I promptly decided to add more play time for my students by starting South Carolina’s first after-school Play Club.

Play Club, a program provided by Let Grow, is exactly what it sounds like–a club where unstructured, child-driven play is not just allowed, but encouraged. While there are adults on the premises to supervise, children are allowed to be children, and anything their imagination can dream up is allowed to happen without any kind of adult intervention, guidance or assistance.

Observing Play Club week after week completely transformed my views on free play—and helped me see that this unstructured time is crucial to children’s growth and development. When there’s not an adult to act as referee, coach or judge, students’ critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills are activated in profound ways.

Observing Play Club has helped me realize that unstructured, real-life experiences can help students build those ever-important “soft skills”—collaboration, resiliency, determination, empathy, confidence, self-efficacy and more.

The impact of unstructured play

Implementing Play Club led to decreased behavioral problems, increased attendance, improved happiness, stronger academic achievement and decreased stress for students at our school. Given this notable impact, we decided to add a 25-minute recess to our school day for all grade levels and opened our school playground 30 minutes before the school day began.

The result? Last year, despite pandemic-related challenges, our school found no significant learning loss–evidenced by triangulated school data. Our school achieved a score of 86% on the state’s end-of-year assessment—well above our goal of 80%.

Other surprising results came in the form of NWEA MAP testing. Over half of the students in my grade level (68%) performed at or above grade level after the 2020-2021 school year.

More importantly, our students are happier, less stressed, less isolated, more motivated and are building stronger relationships with their peers.

Implementing consistent opportunities for unstructured play is a no-cost way that schools can help students recover from new challenges–like the pandemic—while supporting their social, emotional and academic wellbeing.

Kevin Stinehart is a husband, father to two young adventurous girls, a fourth-grade teacher at Central Academy of the Arts, play advocate, and South Carolina State Teacher of the Year Candidate for 2021. Reach out to Kevin at kevin.stinehart@gmail.com—he would love to hear from you.