When you think about the most important part of a child's school day, what comes to mind? Is it reading? Science? Math or history? What about recess? Children will likely mention recess as their favourite part of the day, and new research shows that this free time is actually a fundamental component to their future development and host to numerous educational opportunities.
More than just exercise
Researchers for years have hypothesised about the link between the reduction in free play and the rise of childhood obesity, but new research also indicates a link between children's ability to engage in free play and their overall development. A recent meta-study by the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, commissioned by Landscape Structures Inc., finds that "children's early experiences and the settings they inhabit play a powerful role in shaping the adults they will become." The meta-study also finds that unstructured play provides children the opportunity to practice key social, cognitive and physical skills.
The research draws from a wide body of social scientific analyses, case studies and examinations of play and playground behaviour. Educators, child psychologists, playground designers and the American Academy of Paediatrics all contributed to the report. The findings show that when left in unstructured play, children spend roughly 80 per cent of their time on the playground engaging in important activities such as social, physical and pretend play. Any or all of these activities have been shown to further a child's future development.
The manner in which playtime is spent is nearly as important as the amount of time spent. Well-designed playgrounds have proven to be a uniquely flexible play setting with equipment that supports social and imaginative play while also supporting children with diverse needs and ability levels. Toddlers, for example, appreciate the physical challenge of climbing a few stairs while older children will set their sights on the taller portions of the structure.
However, at the same time that the benefits of unstructured play are being expounded, the research shows the time spent in open play is under attack.
Threats to play come from myriad sources, including restrictive school and work schedules, safety concerns, organised after-school activities and the rise of passive entertainment options including television and video games. These factors combined are seen as the key reasons children's unstructured play has dropped by 25 per cent since 1981.
Pushing back for play
While the importance of classroom lesson plans can never be discounted in a child's educational path, the opportunity for recess and open play should not be seen only as a break. Landscape Structures' research findings show children actively learn while in play and that the skills they learn here cater to their continual development. The educational lessons don't end when the bell rings for recess; they simply become a lot more fun.