Playing at school equals learning at school

From Mark I. West, professor of English at the University of North Caroline at Charlotte, in response to “In CMS, overcrowded schools leave precious little time on playgrounds” (May 2):

I commend Andrew Dunn for drawing attention to the scarcity of playgrounds and playground time in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. As I see it, the requirement that the schools provide children with a half-hour of recess time each day should be regarded as the minimum amount of time allotted to play.

Many researchers in the field of child development, including Brian Sutton-Smith and Jerome and Dorothy Singer, have established that children learn through playing. Especially in the case of younger children, playing is not just a way for youngsters to release pent-up energy. They use play to communicate with one another, to master skills, to explore the natural world, and to engage with stories.

When children are climbing on playground equipment, they are often exercising their minds as well as their bodies. They are creating narratives, developing their imaginations, and learning how to resolve conflicts.

Children are by nature active, and they learn best by doing. When children are quietly sitting at their desks, they might appear to be studious, but in many cases they are not learning very much.

A few years ago I led a seminar called “The Playful Response to Stories” for the Charlotte Teachers Institute (CTI). CTI brings together CMS teachers with faculty members from UNC Charlotte and Davidson College. I had the privilege of working with a group of 15 dedicated CMS teachers. These teachers worked with children from all ages and backgrounds. One teacher taught a group of five-year-olds, most of whom were children of recent immigrants. Another teacher taught German to a group of gifted high school students.

For this seminar, these teachers designed and implemented lesson plans in which their students combined learning objectives with play activities. Since many of them taught reading, their lessons often involved having their students perform scenes from books or pretend to be characters from stories.

A social studies teacher, however, designed a lesson plan in which her students pretended to be figures from American history. One of the kindergarten teachers noticed that her students amplified on her playful lesson plans during their recess period. All of these teachers found that when their students had opportunities to respond playfully to the subjects being covered in the classroom, their students became more engaged, creative, collaborative learners.

The experience of leading this CTI seminar has underscored for me the educational value of play. Providing children with playgrounds and time to play should not be seen as frivolous. In many ways, playgrounds are learning-grounds, and playtime is learning-time.