When parents think about what learning should look like, they may picture students sitting at desks, completing assignments and listening to lectures. Playtime is something that happens outside of school.
But learning can occur in many different ways, and research shows that what looks like simple fun is actually crucial to students’ social and cognitive development.
When children make up stories, they develop skills such as executive function, which helps them regulate emotions and demonstrate self-control. Playing also gives students the chance to gain information about how the world works as they respond to plot twists and learn to think logically. It can increase comprehension and improve time on task, making students more productive when it does come time to listen to the teacher or finish their work.
From spirited games of tag on the playground to imaginative role-playing in history class, play has an important role in what and how students learn.
Play promotes problem-solving: Building Lego structures without instructions. Cracking codes in Escape Rooms. Creating amazing Minecraft worlds. Concocting Rube Goldberg-style machines from household items to accomplish simple tasks. Toys, games, experiments and crafts provide safe ways for kids to try, fail and succeed. They learn how to think critically, learn from their mistakes and ask “what if?”
Play establishes real-life connections: A young child pretending to run a grocery store or teach school is learning about the roles people have in a community and the purpose of different jobs and services. Corbett Prep’s “Living Thanksgiving” tradition allows PreK4 and Kindergarten students to see what life was like for early American settlers as they play games and make candles to engage in activities similar to those of 17th-century children. Third and fourth graders sample entrepreneurship as they set up and operate their own businesses for other students, learning marketing and economics in the process.
Play teaches empathy: Pretending with others helps children form and appreciate relationships as they create scenarios to act out together and consider how their imagined characters will interact. The act of pretending also increases empathy as students take on roles of people different from themselves. Imaginative play can also help kids overcome fears, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as children create fantasy worlds where they rule and conquer scary situations.
Play prepares your brain to learn: If you sit at a desk most of the day, you know that sometimes you have to just get up and move – and when you return, you’re more productive. These “brain breaks,” short opportunities for movement, increase students’ time on task in the classroom. A couple of minutes of singing, dancing, jumping jacks or games pays off by getting your blood flowing and more oxygen to your brain. Longer breaks, such as recess, boost attention and improve behavior. Research has shown that fidgeting increases before recess and decreases afterward.
Play polishes communication skills: Whether children share a common goal in a scavenger hunt or build a story to act out together, play helps them learn to communicate their ideas clearly as well as become better listeners. Reading and following multi-step directions on board games provides valuable practice in comprehension.
Play builds fine motor skills: Learning letters and numbers in prekindergarten is important, but students need opportunities to work with their hands to gain the fine motor skills they will need to write, use scissors and tie their shoes. Play dough, spray bottles or sorting games with tongs or tweezers help develop the pincer grip and build hand strength. Older students who need to improve their fine motor skills for handwriting, sports, musical instruments and more can benefit from time spent on puzzles, origami, jewelry making or card games.
Play encourages teamwork: Learning to work with others is important and sometimes challenging, but play makes it fun. Corbett Prep fifth graders laugh and cheer each other on as they race boats made from boxes and duct tape, but whether they sink or float is less important than the skills they develop designing, building and ultimately rowing the boats. Playing in teams, students of all ages learn to support each other, resolve conflicts, and both lead and follow.
When students play, they gain tools they will need to thrive in a constantly changing world, Boston College developmental psychologist Peter Gray wrote in his book “Free to Play.” Play gives children control over their lives and helps them learn to solve problems, get along with others and manage their emotions, Gray found.
Gray focused on child-directed free play, where children set the rules. But benefits are found in structured games and teacher-guided play as well. The important part is setting aside time for imagination, inquiry and exploration, and appreciating the valuable lessons that fun can teach.