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Martha Kaufeldt opened her Sunday morning session "The Power of Play to Enhance Learning and Social Skills" the same way she likes to begin her classes—by inviting participants to play with handfuls of colorful pipe cleaners and plastic frogs.
"No one is too old or too young for play," she said.
Play, or engaging in activity for enjoyment rather than for a serious or apparently practical purpose, is important for childhood development because it helps children learn to problem solve, regulate emotions, make friends, and experience joy, Kaufeldt said, citing American psychologist Peter Gray.
Kaufeldt, an education consultant and author of Begin with the Brain and The Motivated Brain, asserted that educators who undercut the role of play in the classroom ultimately harm students more than they help them when they take away opportunities for developing children to get outside and exercise creativity through imaginative play.
In her work training teachers, Kaufeldt found that some of the most frequent issues educators have raised about their students involve problems with attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, impulse control, bullying, and underdeveloped physical skills. All these problems stem from modern students' perpetual state of "play deprivation," Kaufeldt said.
"Many of our kids are not getting the type of play experiences that a normally developing human brain should have," she added.
Kaufeldt distinguished between "unstructured" play, or engaging in unsupervised imaginative play like building forts, versus "structured" play, or behaving according to organized rules and regulations like playing a game of soccer. Although the latter helps children develop social skills and fit exercise into their days, Kaufeldt said the former is most necessary for encouraging students to develop a holistic physical, cognitive, social, and emotional sense of self.
"In our history, kids would get together and come up with things to do, whether it be with an old tire or a stick or to build something," Kaufeldt said. "What we're finding is that a lot of affluent kids are over-scheduled into structured activities, so they never have time to develop an imagination."
Kaufeldt said one of the biggest barriers to keeping play part of the school day is the over-emphasis on meeting academic goalposts and raising test scores. "There are many, many schools that are abandoning recess in favor of more extended literacy blocks, and I believe that that's shooting yourself in the foot," Kaufeldt said.
Instead, adding unstructured playtime outside, coupled with reducing screen time indoors, can improve productivity during the hours students spend in the classroom. When students are outside, they learn to filter out extraneous input like a barking dog or a snapping tree branch and focus on the physical activities at hand. But when a child has been sitting in a chair or in front of a screen all day, "the brain has not learned how to filter, and now you put that child in a classroom with 25 others and someone sharpens a pencil and they immediately get distracted," Kaufeldt said.
As an example, Kaufeldt cited a 2009 Pediatric Journal study that said that of the 10,000 students involved in the study, 30 percent had no recess or fewer than 15 minutes of recess each day. However, students who had more than 15 minutes per day of breaks were better behaved during academic time.
Play has a place in the classroom, and Kaufeldt asserted that educators can prioritize play in four ways: by increasing unstructured playtime like recess, providing parental education and sending home "play ideas," organizing minimum days to give children extra time to play, and encouraging after-school programs to promote opportunities for discovery play.
After all, Kaufeldt noted, "play is a primary emotion," and it just might be the magic bullet to solving many of today's learning challenges.
Emily McCormick is a third-year student at UCLA with a major in Communication Studies and minors in Entrepreneurship and Music History. She is also currently the Music | Arts editor at UCLA's Daily Bruin. Contact Emily at email@example.com.
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