The metal slide - a joyful playtime in the 70's

Children Who Play At Recess Develop Into Impressive Humans - Blog Series

Swooshing down a warm metal playground slide with my heels lifted to gain the extra bit of speed.

Feet rapidly tip-tapping on the pavement as you run as fast as you can to avoid being tagged by your friend’s fingertip reach behind you. 

Waddling through the snow like the ‘Michelin Man’ with all the extra layers of clothing your mom made you wear to go tobogganing with your friends on a sunny afternoon after a heavy snowfall. 

 Mr. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning.

Play is really the work of childhood.”

 It is with child-like fondness that I remember these above play memories. Sadly, for many children, recess will be the only time they will encounter authentic play experiences and develop memories of their own while learning to explore, imagine and interact with others.

With COVID keeping us inside and away from school, work and our friends, planning intentional play experiences are critical to healthy child development.  Now more than ever, we need to recall our own authentic playful memories and share these with our children.  We need to bring back the joy of “play”. After all,  we turned out okay . . . right?

Intentional play does not mean that we plan a structured paint-by-the-numbers type of play event.  Intentional play means providing a variety of occasions for a child to experience and become lost in the world of play. 

Play is the unsung SuperHero that supports a child’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical wellbeing and development.

Play is the unsung SuperHero

This blog series will take a unique approach and look at play and recess from a home and school perspective with topics such as:

  • 6 Characteristics of Authentic Play
  • Really . .  .What is recess?
  • How play and recess support the four domains of child development – proof we need recess more than ever!
  • What are the 7 Play Patterns?
  • How do we create a quality recess experience?
  • Homeschool/Virtual School Recess versus “Real” School Recess
  • Withholding recess – helpful or harmful?

For this first blog, we will look at the foundation of play and  . . .

6 Characteristics of Authentic Play

We all have an understanding of play, but do we really KNOW what play is? 

Over the last dozen years, I have read articles where some adults think that play is frivolous and a time-waster.  From my understanding of play, this could not be further from the truth.  I see play the same way I how now view an episode of the “Flintstones”.  When I was a child, I watched the program for the sheer pleasure of it. I enjoyed the antics of Fred, the main character, the friendship with their neighbours, the Rubbles, and the joy of seeing their family pet dinosaur greet Fred at the door. Now as I watch it, with an adult lens, I appreciate the cartoon with a completely different layer of understanding that, as a child, I would not (and should not) comprehend.  I understand the value of cartoons for child development that I didn’t know or was made aware of as a child.

Authentic play is the same.  Initially, as a child, I played for the simple joy it but as an adult, I see the educational dimension play provides. From simply learning how to share and take turns at problem solving a complex Lego structure; to playing with others on slides or swings. Play provides a wealth of knowledge that comes to us without textbooks and desks.

So, then, how do we define play?  Many knowledgeable play scholars solved this challenge by creating a list of characteristics rather than trying to define the abstract:

1. Intrinsically Motivated

The Joy of Play

Children play for the sake of play, not because they gain a tangible reward. Their attitude and appearance are indicators of how engaged they are in play.  For example, are they absorbed in their activity, do they appear to be free of stress and worry?  If the answer is YES, then it can be presumed that the child has entered a true state of play.  Whether the activity is structured like a traditional 4-Square game or a free-form imaginative flight into the galaxy, the joy children experience is their motivation to continue playing.

2.  Personally Directed

    True players have a choice of deciding the type of play they want to become involved in.  If they choose to follow a game with pre-determined rules, like 4-Square, they can follow the rules, or choose to create their own version of the game.  Or they can opt for a make-believe adventure where the ebb and flow of the game is determined by all participating players.

    3.  Freely Chosen

      Someone cannot be made to experience joy and you cannot tell someone to play if they do not want to. On average, it can take approximately 15-20 minutes to become entrenched in authentic play.  A Google search tells us that our attention span is about 8 seconds, can you imagine anyone doing something for 15 minutes they don’t want to do? 

      4.  Pushes Boundaries

          Imaginative play allows children to be whomever they choose to be, empowering them to extend their boundaries. They can slip into different personalities or try challenging new physical activities. This can also be called Risky Play.  Risky play is not running with scissors, contrary to what our parents told us.  Risky play tests or pushes boundaries for children.  It typically refers to thrilling outdoor physical activities that may involve a risk of physical injury like a skinned knee.  

          Risky imaginative play

          Most children play in a safe, supported environment, which when boundaries are pushed, can lead to a variety of learning experiences.   For example, teachers have shared that children play COVID tag.  An initial reaction may be to stop a game with such a controversial theme, yet through play children process how to deal with challenging life situations.

          5.  Crucial for Survival

          Our need for play is in the same region of our brain where eating and sleeping are housed. Jaak Panksepp shares a cute, short video outlining this theory.

           Jaak Panksepp Play is critical for survival The Rat Tickler

          Jaak and other researchers conclude that our need to play is critical to survival.  We cannot live for long without proper nourishment or a sound night’s sleep, so, can we live without play?   Play deprivation is very serious and can have devastating consequences, not only for the person who is play deprived but for others around them.  Throughout this blog series, we will continue to talk about play deprivation and the work of Dr. Stuart Brown.

          6.  A Negotiation Coach

            Rule breaking is a deal breaker in play. Whether this is on purpose (cheating) or by accident (did not know or understand the rules) play will come to a grinding halt if the rules are broken.  To negotiate a solution, we exercise our cognitive, social and emotional skills.  

            I was part of the Streetlight Generation and we played with anyone who was outside.  If we didn’t like the rules, we proposed a change and used our negotiation skills to come to an agreeable conclusion.

            It was simple, sometimes we won and sometimes we lost, but we always compromised.  Never once did a parent come out to solve our problems or tell us how to play. We figured it out ourselves. 

            SuperHero ToolBelt packed w Social Emotional Skills 

            This is a tool I’ve packed away in my invisible superhero tool belt and to this day, it’s ready to go when needed.


            Be a Fly on the Wall

            Next time you see a child in the midst of joyful play, don’t just glance at the child – LOOK at them!  

              Watch a child play

            Ask yourself the following to enhance a child’s play opportunity:

            • Are we giving children the time to master their new accomplishments by practicing over and over? 
            • Are we encouraging small successes?
            • Are we asking questions instead of giving instructions with the adult-way-to-play goggles on?
            • Are we taking the time to play with them?  Do we the child to lead the activity?

            Join us as we continue this journey into play and recess.  Next time we will delve into what recess is.