“Go outside and play! It’s a beautiful day,” my mother often admonished us when we were small, and had not yet ventured outdoors on a sunny day. She considered it a wasted day if we stayed inside when the weather was fine … though it’s also possible she was eager for a respite from the daily grind of parenting. We logged many hours of outdoor play growing up in Atlanta — adventures to which I’ve alluded in previous posts. During summer, especially, we spent nearly the entire day outside, from early in the morning until after dark, breaking only for meals at home. Activities involved all forms of play, which I’ll describe in a moment. The sad truth is that play as a fundamental part of childhood , especially outdoor play, seems to be receding further into the shadows of most children’s early years. It must be saved before it disappears completely. An article in the Washington Post , printed in the Health and Family section of the February 19 Chicago Tribune, focuses on recess in schools, and notes something early childhood practitioners have known for years: outdoor play holds an array of developmental benefits for children. Recess as a daily part of the school routine has all but vanished from schools across the country, giving way to the pervasive focus on testing and assessment of children’s academic performance. Increased time for standardized test preparation and test-taking has edged outdoor play from the mindset of school personnel as a valuable component of children’s experiences. For some schools, though, the reasons for keeping children inside are more complex, often involving safety concerns. High-crime and gang activity can make recess a high-stakes venture, severely limiting time spent outdoors or eliminating it altogether. Either way, children pay a developmental price when they don’t have consistent opportunities for outdoor play. Eliminating play to make room for building attention span, instructional time, and strong performance on standardized tests are counter-productive. These practices continue despite the 2012 position taken by the American Academy of Pediatrics advocating recess for its all-around benefits to children. Mari-Jane Williams, author of the Post article, profiles Playworks, a non-profit organization that is coming to the rescue of recess in schools across the country. This nonprofit group has the right idea about play. Play coaches are hired to work directly with school personnel to plan structured recess activities that fit within the school’s curriculum and support children’s physical, social and emotional development. Check out their web site here: www.playworks.org . What’s interesting about Playworks is not so much the activities and materials themselves, but the social and emotional support embedded in the outdoor experiences developed collaboratively with teacher and play coaches. Children are coached to become fully involved in the play, and to learn the social skills so critical to getting along in a group, expressing feelings appropriately, and resolving conflict — skills every individual on the planet must learn, to some degree, to have a productive and valuable life. The loss of recess in schools has interrupted this vital experience. Consider for a moment how they teach children to solve disputes. The classic Rock-Paper-Scissors game does the trick. Just think how many adult conflicts might have been solved in the work place or at home were this approach taken … it’s a start, at least. Teachers and principals who’ve participated in the Playworks initiative have reported many benefits to programming, including more productive outdoor play, fewer behavior problems, less bullying, and smoother transitions to classroom work, post-outdoor play. We early childhood folks really see no separation between play, in its myriad of forms, and potential learning and development. There are so many ways to play: sensory play, rough-and-tumble play, block play, fantasy (pretend) play, board games, card games, group games … and the list goes on. Yet this natural inclination in children, which encourages self-knowledge, understanding of others, and understanding of the world, is yanked out from under them at the very time they are transforming into beings who delightedly act on this learning. Allow me to make you an Instant Play Expert. Simply read the following list of the benefits of play, and you, too, can understand, and advocate in your own personal way the value of play. Play makes children smarter since it supports critical thinking, concept development, creativity, and knowledge about how the physical world works. Play makes children healthier because it builds small muscles, large muscles, eye-hand coordination, balance, agility, stamina, and appropriate energy release. Play makes children more together emotionally and socially by supporting the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, engage in perspective-taking, learn how to be a friend and make a friend, resolve conflicts, wait, take turns, negotiate ideas, persevere in a project, take risks, and win or lose gracefully. Children do not learn all these skills spending their days indoors. I am not denying the benefits of all the learning and growth that happens in the classroom — or I would not have entered the teaching profession myself. But the avenue for figuring out of to just be in the world, and build a happy and productive life, is through this intrinsically pleasurable and powerful experience of play. Children are driven to do it. And we should embrace it. Indulge me for just a moment as I take a little trip down the memory lane of my own childhood of outdoor play. What a deliciously fine time it was. We roller skated; biked; sledded; rolled in the snow, staged snow ball fights and built snowmen; pulled each other in wagons; played in the sandbox; played hop scotch; played on the swings, slides, climbing bars, merry-go-rounds and the teeter totter; built forts in the woods; looked for fish and other aquatic creatures in the nearby creeks; climbed trees; swam; ran through the sprinkler; played a million kinds of tag; dodge ball; baseball; football; pickle; balanced on home-made stilts; bounced on pogo sticks; scheduled outdoor card games and board games; created elaborate day time and after-dark hide-and-seek games; climbed all over the building equipment vacated by workmen in the late afternoon; constructed superhero scenarios and lost-children dramas; and staged concerts , plays, and re-creations of skits from the Laugh-In show — all of which concluded with an audience-participation and hopelessly awful rendition of America the Beautiful (I owe a debt of gratitude to my own parents and my friends’ parents for putting up with this last little task). It’s my hope that organizations like Playworks will continue to gain a foothold in school districts across the nation. Right now they operate in 23 cities, according to the Post article (sadly, Chicago is not among them). But I’m also interested to know how you played as a child. What was your favorite game or past-time outside? Why do you think you enjoyed it so much? Let me know! Now I must get outside myself. After all, we just changed our clocks and the sun is still up.