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Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Protection of Playtime

A Protection of Playtime

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Two evenings ago, I watched as my daughter and two friends ran around our yard for the better part of an hour and a half, giving what appeared to be piggyback rides to each other.  I found out later that one was playing a princess, another was playing her horse, and a third was playing the handsome prince.  It was pretty cute, as they negotiated roles and traveled to another world.
Yesterday, my son and his friend played basketball in the drive, using chalk of different colors to denote competitive shot locations.  They then sat around and looked at basketball trading cards, I’ll bet even brokering a few back and forth, before running through our yards to find something else to play, probably kickball.
I’m writing from the back deck today, as my daughter finishes her BFF sleepover a few doors down with those same two girls, and as my son sleeps-in, something he enjoys when he can.
Things are not always this unstructured. 
At times, my children go from school, to homework in dad’s office, to dance, to soccer practice, to scouting, to dinner, and to bed, as well, pretty much with that much regimentation.  They have been known to be regular’s at University Hall.  Yet, I’m proud to say that typically, they get to play unstructured for at least an hour or so each day.
My wife Wendy and I have the good fortune of having children that behave very well in structured environments.  They have since they were very little, saying “Please” and “Thank You,” and generally treating others with respect.  I remember at times when they would be with me in the barber shop, sitting quietly with saucer-like eyes as other children were misbehaving, asking me “What’s up with that?” when we hopped in the truck.  My children are people-pleasers, and this has worked out quite well for our relationship with their teachers.
Yet, it is when I watch my children play with others during these unstructured times that I truly get a handle on their character and civility, as well as their socio-emotional development.  It’s how they behave when they do not know I’m looking that speaks volumes about them, in a way that compliance during structured activities could never demonstrate.
In watching from the deck or through the kitchen window, I learn much about their problem solving, their creativity, their collaboration, their consideration for others, as well as their responses and resilience when things don’t go their way.  They learn, as well, through trial and error, what among their own behaviors brings them closer to others, and what moves them farther away.  As parents, we can “tell” them what works and what doesn’t, yet it is when they “show” themselves, through their own action or inaction, that the lessons really solidify.
This is the power of playtime. 
I would like us to protect that.
I have the good fortune of having a Department Chair and Dean who are supportive of my allowing unstructured time for my children this summer.  I can work for the most part from home during the day, as my wife serves as an Infant Teacher at the ISU Early Childhood Education Center, then visiting my office on campus later each day, once Wendy arrives home.  In that regard, I am allowed to do what I believe as a society we’re not doing enough of, at present.
Protecting playtime.
I know of many parents, whether in the summertime or during the school year, who must schedule their children out of family necessity into supervised care, typically structured. This is understandable, as a two-parent income is needed for most of us to stay afloat.  Others, however, have their children involved in so many structured activities, that family time each week consists of eating fast-food in the back seat of a car, as a parent leaves one child at one practice while driving across town to another.  This provides students some pretty cool experiences, yet I’m not sure how this is working out for the kids in terms of creativity, collaboration, consideration, or resilience.
These are good folks who love their kids, making the best decisions they can for healthy growth and development.  Yet, playtime is the “cost” of those other, structured opportunities.  Can schools help, and should they?  In terms of the importance of whole-child development, I would argue a definitive, “Yes.” 
Noted author and school visionary Elliot Washor co-wrote Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Student Dropout Rates. He was kind in giving me a copy a few summers ago.  With a website stating, “All students need to leave school—frequently, regularly, and, of course, temporarily—to stay in school and persist in their learning” (, his book echoes these sentiments throughout.
Admittedly, Elliot and co-author Charles Mojkowski focus on high school students, yet could we apply this same notion to students in earlier grades, in terms of leaving the classroom more often, for recess?  Might the notion of leaving to learn be extended to include the intentional design of more K-12 experiences for children that are supervised, yet unstructured . . . that involve “play,” no matter the content area or grade level?
My son’s biggest adjustment over the next few years in school, and the biggest challenge to his development and learning, might very well be just the fact that he will no longer have recess as he knows it.  I couldn’t imagine better schools for him than the ones he will attend locally, yet the structural reality of American education is that his playtime with others, defined developmentally for each age level, will be reduced substantially.
It’s just the way we do things in K-12.
It is interesting to me, that while educators and schools have been deemed responsible for providing “all that society abrogates” in recent years, even if resources are limited or unavailable, we have not recognized “playtime” as something unintentionally yet harmfully abrogated in children’s lives, having an adverse impact on the next generation.
I would encourage friends and colleagues in K-12 to prioritize the protection of unstructured social opportunities (i.e. “playtime”) as a “must-have” for effective student growth and development throughout the K-12 experience.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is interested in learning more about any school at any level in K-12 that prioritizes the protection of playtime for its students, and even for its staff.  If you have any information that you would be willing to share, please contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at 

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