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  • Play, preschool and academics

    Three decades ago, 40 percent of a typical preschool day was devoted to child-initiated play. Today, this number has fallen dramatically. Over the years, play has become second fiddle to early academic preparation. But are we actually helping children succeed academically and socially by reducing the amount of play in their day?

    Recent research shows that preschool children who engage in various forms of open-ended play display more complex language skills, more developed social skills, greater levels of empathy, higher levels of creativity, and better-developed interpersonal skills. Additionally, preschool children who spend more time playing are less aggressive, exhibit higher levels of executive function, display more complex thinking skills, and have brains with more complex neurological structures.

    Nations like China, Japan and Finland are touted for their exceptional international math and science assessment scores. Those countries also boast preschools that are playful and experimental, not instructive. Much has been written about Finland and the Scandinavian approach to education, where play is a priority and getting dirty is encouraged and viewed as an opportunity to learn.

    A new documentary shows the contrasts between America’s craze for standardized tests and Scandinavia’s acceptance of nature. Play serves as a powerful engine that drives learning in the preschool years and beyond. “NaturePlay: Take Childhood Back” examines this issue. The underlying differentiation shown in the film is the notion that “children belong in nature and nature belongs in education.”

    Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal featured an article on The Scandinavian School of Jersey City, a “gentle place where 92 children play barefoot to feel a connection to their environment and the air often smells like peppermint or citrus from aromatherapy. Classrooms have bowls of pine cones, seashells and rocks for toys. Some chairs are sawed-off tree stumps.”

    Children who experience play-based preschool programs boast a strong advantage over those who are denied play and are more likely to become happy, healthy, well-adjusted grownups.

    How would you feel about sending your child to a play-focused preschool?

  • Recess makes kids smarter

    Shwetha Ramani is a freelance communications professional who grew up in India and is now exploring the world of PR on the other side of the world, in the U.S. She lives outside of New York City with her husband.

    When I moved to the U.S. two years ago, one of the first things that struck me as different was not seeing throngs of kids running and playing outdoors. I grew up in India, where kids would all gather outdoors every evening and play well until 7 or 8 p.m. And during summer holidays and weekends, they would spend all day playing outdoors. But that wasn’t the only difference. A few months back, when I began working on Playworld’s Power of Recess campaign, I was very surprised to learn that schools in the U.S. are either cutting back or eliminating recess time altogether because of academic pressures.

    As someone who’s always had two recesses – a 15-minute short recess and a 40-minute long recess – I can attest that recess is a highlight of the typical school day. It provides kids with some much needed down time and allows them to reenergize themselves and focus better in class.

    I recall the boys in my class quickly finishing off lunch and then engaging in a game of cricket, creating a ball out of used silver foil paper and repurposing their pencil boxes as bats. The girls would either join the boys or form their own groups and walk around the school corridors. The lunch break encouraged us to be more physically active and when we returned to class once the break ended, the day didn’t seem all that long and dreary anymore. Also, some of the brightest kids in my class were the ones that played the most!

    The Indian education system is equally focused on academics. Yet, there are certain aspects (read: recess) that are given their due importance. Year after year, India produces a large number of students who excel in the STEM (science technology engineering mathematics) subjects, many of whom make their way to the U.S. to pursue their MBAs and doctorates. Does this have anything to do with sufficient recess time or the fact that Indians play more? While there is no concrete evidence to prove the correlation, it does provide us with some food for thought.

    The benefits of recess are clear. Why are so many schools cutting it back?

  • Scratching the June itch: keeping kids focused with play

    We anticipate it every year. Summer is quickly approaching and school is coming (or for some already has come) to an end. A few months off from school bring a more carefree attitude, fun activities and family vacations. However, this can also be a challenging time for teachers and parents who are struggling to keep children focused on academics for the final days of school. Kids tend to get antsy. They want to be outside playing and dreaming about how they’re going to spend their summers. But there’s still work to be done and teachers need their students to be at their desks and prepared to finish out the school year.

    Fortunately, there’s a fun and effective solution to helping kids stay focused during this last stretch: play! Allowing children to engage in active playtime provides them with an outlet for their energy. Besides letting them rest and recharge, it offers them the opportunity to communicate, cooperate and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well in life.

    Think about it this way – would you like to sit at your desk all day long and not be allowed to take a break? Probably not. Well, it’s not any different for kids! We have to provide them with the playtime they need if we want them to perform well academically.

    Schools in Finland have successfully implemented this strategy throughout their school year. For every 45 minutes of instruction, children receive a 15-minute break. In fact, an American teacher who taught in Finland recently highlighted his experience. He noticed a drastic difference between implementing the American approach of prolonged periods of classes followed by a short break and implementing the Finnish approach. The Finnish approach resulted in a classroom full of focused, eager and happy kids, whereas the American approach led to a classroom full of restless and distracted kids.

    The more we provide kids with opportunities for free play, the more attentive they will be in the classroom – not just at the end of the year, but every school day. It’s important for play to be incorporated into children’s daily lives as it serves as an important platform for growth and discovery.

    Are you making sure your kids play enough?

  • Subbing Play for Sweets in Year-End Festivities

    It’s that time of year. The end of school is near and the weeks are filled with special events and ceremonies that culminate all the hard work students have done since September. I’m not going to lie: I love the pomp and circumstance of the spring recitals, presentations and blacktop parties. My eyes tear up just thinking about how they help us mark time as our children end one grade and prepare for the next. What I could live without is yet another Sign-up Genius notice asking me to bring treats in for the students.

    Why does every event require food? I give my children breakfast at home, they are allowed a snack (before or after lunch, depending on when their class goes to the cafeteria) and then they eat lunch. Why do we need to bring more food for them to eat in between those three meals?

    Just last week, my husband and I attended our third grader’s recorder recital. It was absolutely delightful listening to the students with the sweet sounds of their recorders playing in unison. I couldn’t believe how many songs they learned. It seemed we only heard the same three or four at home. After the show, we were invited to the blacktop for a reception where the kids were offered Capri Sun juice pouches, cinnamon rolls, mini-muffins and bags of chips – all before 10 a.m.

    One mom I know approached the food table with a big Dunkin Donuts bag. The kids nearly attacked her, not even hearing her say, "It's not donuts!" as she walked over. When she pulled out beautiful homemade fruit kabobs, there was some initial disappointment, but many of the kids grabbed one, ate the fresh fruit, and tossed the empty stick in the trash before running off to play on the playground.

    The truth is I’m not sure we needed a reception at all. If the point was for the parents to spend time with their kids afterward, it didn’t happen. They mostly pounced on the food table and then ran off to chase each other or play on the playground. If the objective was to reward the kids for their hard work all year (and they deserved it!), then why not offer fruit and water? Or better yet, ask the parents to lead an activity – such as a craft or a scavenger hunt. Give them 15 extra minutes on the playground. Can’t we use fun as the reward, not just food?

    I failed to mention we had gone to a similar reception the prior week for Invention Convention – cookies and brownies before lunch! And I just found out last night that the teacher had to cancel a museum field trip to take care of a personal matter. The solution? Another classroom party!

    I don’t want to come across as an advocate for over-policing food in the schools. I am a big believer in moderation when it comes to sweets. But we shouldn’t be surprised that our kids aren’t making healthy food choices when we’re bombarding them with treat after treat as the school year comes to a close.

    With recess and outdoor play on the decline, perhaps we should consider the consequences of kids consuming junk food and not having enough physical activity at school. Have you found a way to make classroom parties less about treats and more about play?

  • Debating the necessity of childhood: why questioning recess is ludicrous

    For starters, it’s pretty absurd that I’m actually writing a post on why recess is necessary. Isn’t it obvious that it’s necessary? Turns out, it’s not. 40 percent of school districts in the US have reduced recess time and nearly 7 percent of school districts have eliminated recess altogether.

    As someone who makes an effort to incorporate playfulness into my own workday routine, I am very concerned about the unwarranted squeeze on recess. The thought of little kids, who should be tearing through the playground, spending all day at school being chained to a desk is scary.

    When are folks going to realize that recess offers much more than a chance for kids to work up a sweat? It benefits every aspect of childhood development and leads to better behavior and grades. So the fact that it’s being taken away from children as a punishment for bad behavior or to increase focus on academics is mind-boggling.

    Recess is the one time a day when kids go outside and are able to choose what they do. It is important for kids and big kids alike to take breaks and do things that someone else isn’t telling us to do. Do you remember the math class or homework from seventh grade? Probably not. But you’re much more likely to have fond memories of the made-up game that you and friends played for days together on the playground.

    Kids have big imaginations and we need to give them the space to utilize it! Demanding that they move less and sit more is counterproductive. Research, and our own common sense, tells us that we should be doing the opposite.

    Does your child get enough recess?

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