Summer may be over, but that doesn't mean kids should stop playing. Play builds active minds as much as it builds active bodies, and by playing together, children gain social competence that is vital to their development and growth. In short, play helps to build the 21st-century skills that children will need to thrive in the workplace and to navigate our complex, ever-changing world.
These five studies illuminate just how integral play is to children's learning, achievement, and success:
How has play helped your child learn?
As a critical driver of positive educational outcomes for kids, play will be a topic of discussion with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Aspen Institute CEO, Walter Isaacson, at the inaugural Playful City USA Leaders’ Summit later this month in Baltimore. Learn more.
The lazy days of summer are winding down. A new school year awaits, full of exciting opportunities to learn, grow, and make new friends.
For many children, a new school year also means more stress. Not all stress is unhealthy—as Marian Wilde of GreatSchools.org points out, “Good stress induces a student to strive for her personal best on an exam, a term paper or on the debate team.”
Yet unfortunately, the stress levels of today’s children are rising at worrisome rates. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), typical schoolchildren today report more anxiety than did child psychiatric patients in the 1950's, and the National Association of Health Education Centers reports that 9-13 year olds say they are “more stressed by academics than any other stressor—even bullying or family problems.”
Active play is a proven stress reducer, not only helping children during times of trauma, but also to handle the stresses of everyday life. A recent study in Finland found that physical activity helps children cope with stress, with physically active children reporting “happier moods and fewer symptoms of depression than children who are less active.”
Of course, play is not just about active bodies, but also active minds. As cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman points out, imaginative play “allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and the modulation of affect, the ability to integrate emotion with cognition.” The social aspects of play also help kids feel more connected to their communities, reducing feelings of isolation or exclusion.
Children intuitively understand that play is not only fun, but helps them cope with stress. A boy in a KaBOOM! focus group of eight- and nine-year-olds recently noted: “Play is important because you lose some energy and become calm and make your Mom happy for the rest of the day.”
In fact, play can make Mom (and Dad) happy in more ways than one. A group of Kansas State researchers found that single mothers who play with their kids experience less stress than those who don’t. While all kids need room to direct their own course of play, family playtime can reduce stress for parents and children alike.
That’s why it’s imperative that families, schools, and communities make time to play this fall—during school, after school, and on the weekends. While stress relief for adults has become a powerful, multi-faceted industry, for children it could be as simple as a trip to the playground.
It’s summer, and the heat is on. Does your neighborhood playground look like it’s about to melt? This playground in Houston, Texas actually did:
When the temperature outside is 90-100 degrees, playground equipment and surfacing can get as hot as 130 to 150 degrees, putting kids are at risk of second-degree burns. There’s a reason that hot cities suffer from “empty playground syndrome.”
But some cities are starting to wise up, making sure to incorporate shade elements into new playground designs and adding them to existing playgrounds. Not only does shade limit UV exposure, but its cooling effect is remarkable. Ian Smith, the Director of Athletics from the Boys and Girls Club of San Fernando Valley in Pacoima, CA says, “Before [adding shade structures], the kids were not able to play on the playground during the day. Now that we have shade, the temperature of the playground area is 15-20 degrees cooler and the kids are able to play safely!”
As Ian points out, during the heat of summer, shade can make the difference between an empty playground and one that’s crawling with kids. At a shaded playground, kids will stay longer and play more often.
At KaBOOM!, we try to incorporate shade into our playgrounds when possible. Left: The VIET playground in New Orleans stays crowded all summer long. Right: Kids rejoice in the shade at the Alliance for Women and Children playground in Abilene, Texas.
Know a good shady playground in your area? Help other parents in your area by adding a photo on our Map of Play.
Know a playground that needs some shade? Don’t just wring your hands! Listen to this podcast to get some helpful hints for planning and budgeting for a shade project, plus check out these grants from the American Academy of Dermatology and the Shade Foundation of America.
Got any other tips for playing it cool at the playground?
Following his recent visit to the World Economic Forum on East Asia, our CEO and Founder Darell Hammond reflects on the global economic benefits of play:
What is the world’s most vital resource? It’s not oil. It’s not gold. It’s our children. As acclaimed economist Jeffrey D. Sachs puts it, “Investing in the health, education, and skills of children offers the highest economic returns to a country.”
The earlier we start making these investments, the better. According to UNICEF, “Early childhood represents a unique window of opportunity for investing in children’s cognitive and physical development.” While these investments should cover a wide range of needs, there is one need we often overlook: play.
We all know that play comes intuitively to children, but few of us are aware of just how vital it is to their development. Dr. Sam Wang and Dr. Sandra Aamodt, who have researched how play enhances brain development say, “the 19th-century kindergarten movement, which popularized the concept of preschool education, was based on the idea that songs, games, and other activities are a means for children to gain perceptual, cognitive, social, and emotional knowledge that prepares them for entering the world.”
We often hear about the successes of Chinese and Japanese students, who earn top science, reading, and math scores in the international PISA exam, but less discussed is their “playful and experiential… approach to schooling before second grade.” Even in later years, many students in China and Japan received short play breaks every 50 minutes.
A case study from Germany reveals just how important play is for a young child’s future success. In the 1970s, many of the country’s play-based kindergartens were transformed into “centers for cognitive achievement.” Longitudinal research comparing 50 play-based centers with 50 cognitive achievement centers found that by age ten the children who had played in kindergarten “were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and ‘industry.’”
As this research indicates, early childhood education represents a critical window for giving children access to play opportunities. It’s no coincidence that the five countries that top the chart in UNICEF’s recently released report, Child Well-Being in Rich Countries—The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and Germany—are all countries that make substantive investments in high-quality, play-rich daycare and preschool opportunities.
But do these investments pay off? According to Science Daily, a longitudinal study revealed that "for every $1 invested in a Chicago early childhood education program, nearly $11 is projected to return to society over the children's lifetimes."
Global studies have found that investment in early childhood development reduces crime rates and increases future wage-earning potential, thus increasing government revenue. UNICEF reports, “A simulation on increasing pre-school enrolment in 73 countries found benefits in terms of higher future wages of $6.4-$17.6 per dollar invested. The simulation indicated potential long-term benefits which range from $11 to $34 billion.”
Increasingly, our world economy depends not just on productive workers, but on creative ones. An IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide revealed that the single most important trait, “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision,” to successfully navigating an increasingly complex world” is creativity. In his extensive research on innovation, educator Tony Wagner “identifies a pattern—a childhood of creative play leads to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion, and purpose: these are the forces that drive young innovators.”
Around the world, play opportunities are disappearing, and countries are paying the price. Literally. Society pays the cost of remedial help, public benefits, medical care, and even incarceration. Meanwhile, we are hindering our world’s next generation of innovative thinkers and business leaders.
Most tragically of all, our children are missing out on the childhood they deserve. Depriving them is a grave moral failure—and one that we simply cannot afford.
Ready to wallow? On June 29, the World Forum Foundation is encouraging children around the world to get muddy in honor of International Mud Day. We take a moment to pay tribute to this ooey gooey carpet-staining substance.
Mud play benefits children in five crucial ways:
Of course, kids don’t need any prodding to get outside and get muddy. Share photos of your muddy kid by posting to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #mymuddykid. We’ll feature our favorites on Facebook and our blog.
In the tornado-ravaged town of Moore, Okla., all people want is for things to return to “normal.” What does “normal” mean? Adults no doubt crave the comfort of their own beds, a running refrigerator, a hot shower. But for kids, “normal” might be as simple as a chance to play.
In the wake of disaster, we must meet our children’s basic needs – food, shelter, water – but it’s not enough. For children whose lives have been turned upside-down, play is absolutely essential for maintaining a sense of stability amidst turmoil and helping them to work through emotional trauma. That’s because play is simple, familiar and joyful – all the things that adversity is not.
It’s easy to push play down the priority list, but luckily child-serving organizations around the world understand its healing power. After Hurricane Sandy, the international nonprofit Save the Children set up safe play areas in shelters “where hundreds of children can be kids again.” After the 2011 tsunami earthquake in Japan, World Vision created child-friendly play spaces because they considered “emotional support to be just as critical as physical assistance for vulnerable children who have experienced disasters.” And when it came to aiding the children affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Clinton Global Initiative found that play was “one of the best medicines.”
Play is a critical component to both immediate and long-term rebuilding efforts. In 2005, KaBOOM! committed to building over one hundred playgrounds in the Gulf following Hurricane Katrina. We ended up building 143 (and counting). Kathleen Koch, author of Rising from Katrina, noted that adults “were busy trying to replace physical objects--lost homes, cars, and possessions. [But] there was nothing anyone could do to recapture a lost childhood.”
At one of the Gulf sites where we built a playground – a school in Kiln, Mississippi – the principal reported:
The psychologists in our area have been doing studies on kids in the schools in our district, and they reported seeing things… like thoughts about suicide, murder and other types of violence – truly terrible things. But, they also reported that they didn’t see those things in the kids at North Central Elementary and they attribute a lot of that to the playground.
Similarly, when KaBOOM! joined forces with the town of Joplin, Missouri to build a playground there 16 months after a tornado devastated the area, Superintendent of Joplin Schools CJ Huff noted that talk of suicide decreased. "Playgrounds are a critical component to the infrastructure in any community," he said. "We also found playgrounds were really a place of reunification in the aftermath of the tornado and a meeting place for children who hadn’t seen each other since the storm."
Just a few weeks ago, we helped to rebuild Magnolia Park in the City of Long Beach, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Long Beach resident Ryan Spel said, “What a great experience, [it] meant a tremendous amount to me be part of rebuilding my hometown… I will never forget it.”
Back in 2006, KaBOOM! supported a playground-building effort at Plaza Towers Elementary School—one of the two schools demolished by the tornado. As we work on a long-term plan to contribute to the rebuilding efforts of Plaza Towers and the town of Moore, let’s support the organizations on the ground that are seeking resources to address the community’s immediate needs. Save the Children is coordinating a response effort for affected children and families; please support its worthy efforts by making a donation today.
It’s all too easy to forget that kids bear the stress of their families: lost jobs, lost homes, lost lives. Getting outside and having the opportunity to run, laugh, and play is essential—because all children deserve a childhood. Even when faced with trying external circumstances beyond our control, it is our responsibility to ensure that they don’t miss out.
Boredom. Kids hate it, and parents hate hearing about it.
So we turn to sports camps. Video games. Amusement parks. But do we have to “fight boredom” with an endless chain of activities?
In fact, some boredom can be good for your kids. It essentially tells them: Figure out something to do. Use your imagination. Newsweek notes, "In the space between anxiety and boredom [is] where creativity flourishe[s]."
Professor of Social Psychology Paddy O'Donnell points out in The Times, "Boredom shouldn't last long if children are in the right environment where they're dragged off either by curiosity or the desire to socialise. It continues only if there's no one to play with or the environment's too restrictive."
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a week of sports camp, an occasional video game, or a trip to the amusement park, but instead of constantly conjuring up activities to wage war against boredom, think about how you can foster the “right environment” and how that environment can include other kids.
Creating these environments at home, on your street, and at your local park or playground may require some initial legwork, but will save time and headaches down the road. You can relax, bring on the boredom, and watch your child's creativity flourish!
Here are five ideas to ensure that your kids make the most of their boredom this summer:
Can't get to the beach? Bring the beach home. If you've ever watched your child effortlessly wile away an afternoon digging in the sand at the water's edge, then you know how much they love manipulable environments where they can tinker, explore, create, and destroy. Consider these affordable DIY sandbox and sprinkler ideas.
Photo by courosa (cc).
A pop-up playground can pop up anywhere -- a back yard, front yard, garage, or sidewalk.The best part? It doesn't have to cost a dime. While it may be difficult for adults to envision the play opportunities presented by, say, a cardboard box, paper towel roll, or stack of newspapers, children will inevitably turn scrap materials into their own magical kingdoms.
Photo courtesy of popupadventureplay.org
On your street:
Want to make sure your kids get a summer camp experience full of free play opportunities? Start your own camp, then—on your own street. Inspired by Playborhood founder Mike Lanza’s Camp Yale, neighbors Jennifer Antonow and Diana Nemet have been running Camp Iris Way for two summers now. Last year, the camp attracted a whopping 72 children and teens—more than 90 percent of the youth in their neighborhood! Jennifer and Diana offer six simple steps to starting your own camp, insisting that it's not nearly as daunting as it may seem.
Photo via Aaron Selverston, Palo Alto Patch.
At the playground:
For three summers now, we have challenged families to visit as many playgrounds as they can. Tired of seeing so many empty playgrounds, Playground Challenger Liza Sullivan decided to take our Challenge one step further by inviting her neighbors along. The Last Days of Summer Park-A-Day Challenge gave families one park or playground destination each day for one week.
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (cc).
What ideas do you have for making the most of boredom this summer?
Is our play deficit linked to our children’s growing attention deficit? As we kick off National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s time to seriously examine the mental repercussions of denying our kids the time and space they need to move and explore—in short, to be kids.
New data from the CDC reveals that 11 percent of school-age children have been diagnosed with A.D.H.D., representing a 41 percent rise in the past decade. About two-thirds of the 6.4 million children who have been diagnosed take a prescription for a stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall.
According to The New York Times, “stimulants can drastically improve the lives of those with A.D.H.D. but can also lead to addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis.”
Let’s be clear: doctors and parents know best, but there is an all-natural stimulant that many recognize as effectively addressing our children’s increasing stress and deteriorating mental health: active play. Recent research shows that play in open green spaces was associated with milder symptoms of ADD and ADHD, even in children whose symptoms do not respond to medication. Research also shows that "periods of play improve social skills, impulse inhibition and attention" and results in "neurochemical changes...especially in those brain areas in which ADHD children are deficient."
Though some girls are diagnosed with ADHD, it’s overwhelmingly a “disorder” of boys—boys being boys, in most cases. They were not made to sit in a classroom for six hours per day... They need to be outside playing in tree houses and organizing their own baseball leagues and exploring the woods—even just being quiet by themselves.
Growing trends toward squeezing play out of the school curriculum are forcing our children to sit for longer and at younger ages. According to studies cited in USA Today, “40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess to allow more time for core academics,” which is not only worrisome, but actually counterproductive. The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that among many “cognitive, physical, emotional, and social benefits,” recess improves children’s attention spans and classroom behavior.
In Finland, where students’ test scores top international charts, elementary-aged children get 75 minutes of recess daily. Interestingly, about one percent of children in Finland take a prescription drug to treat A.D.H.D.
Of course, our country’s play deficit extends far beyond school walls. Our children’s homes are filled with screens, and their neighborhoods lack safe places to play.
During National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s important to acknowledge the vital role of active play when it comes to our children’s happiness and well-being. If teachers, parents, community leaders, and policy makers united to prescribe our children more play, perhaps our doctors would be prescribing fewer pills.
This Saturday, on April 27, GOOD is asking folks around the world to celebrate Neighborday, "a global celebration of the people with whom we share space."
And what better way to celebrate than to turn that space into a place to play? After all, it's not fair that cars always get to hog your street, when it could be filled with hula hoops, bouncy balls, chalk art, and cardboard boxes.
So this Saturday, it's time to claim your street, play with your neighbors, and generally make merry. Just follow our tried-and-true recipe for a perfect playful block party:
How will you celebrate Neighborday?
Illustration by our talented artist in residence, Marian Blair.
Our vision is a playground within walking distance of every child in America, but if we had our way, the same would one day be true for every child in the world. The play deficit is not a uniquely American problem.
It’s telling that in some of the most impoverished countries—where many families struggle for basic necessities, like food, water, and shelter—children still find ways to play. As Sports Without Borders puts it: “There is no childhood without play.”
Here are three inspiring recent initiatives to bring play to children in need:
Peace Corps Volunteer Greg Plimpton tells the story behind the first playground built in the town of San Luis de Canete, Peru:
“As a Peace Corps Volunteer, my first project was to survey local neighborhoods to determine local needs and possible projects. As I went from home to home, I noticed that there were often young children inside, watching television or playing games indoors, even though it was summer and the weather was absolutely gorgeous.
"I was puzzled by this and asked why. I was told there was no safe place for the children to play outside, and homes here are built side by side, with little or no yard. I collaborated with Angel Garcia, my community partner and San Luis Parks and Recreation Director, to write a grant proposal, which was approved by the Mayor and town council. Dozens of my friends contributed the $1200 donations, which the Municipality matched with land, labor, transportation and materials.
"Nearly all the materials were obtained or created locally. Used tires were donated by local tire shops and the local fire house donated rolls of used fire-hose. A last-minute addition was the shade tarp, to temper the intense summer sun of the tropics. The park is PACKED every day. The city has now applied for money from the Federal government to build two more, as well as a skate park. Seeing the smiles and laughter of the children has been one of the highlights of my Peace Corps service.”
In Zanzibar, the One World Futbol Project has partnered with the Zanzibar National Sports Council and Save the Children to distribute 20,000 virtually-indestructible balls to all the schools and youth programs on the islands of Unguja and Pemba. Says Sandra Cress on the One World Futbol blog:
"Even in the hot mid-day sun, with no water to drink and no shoes on their feet, the children play football with abandon. They play with balls that are made up of rags tied together. They play with old soccer balls that have no outside leather left, and no air in them—deflated bladders so that balls just barely roll. They play on the beaches; on the stone streets in Stonetown; on thorny, patchy fields that double as cow pastures. The goals are made up of sticks, PVC pipes, even coconut tree trunks.
"The children imitate the moves of their soccer heroes—Messi, Ronaldo, Mata, Van Persie, and other global soccer superstars. Someone calls a foul, and one child studiously paces off the 10 meters from the free kick. The 'Beautiful Game' helps these children be healthy in unhealthy circumstances. It allows them time to feel good and experience joy, to bond with teammates. Playing soccer helps them learn and follow rules of the game. It builds self-esteem and teaches them to treat each other with respect.
"Mubarak Mambud, the tireless Director of Save the Children, Zanzibar, speaks of how much more attentive and productive children are when they have time to play. Having access to a ball in school even reduces truancy and decreases behavior disruptions in school."
On February 28, a team of 20 traveled to Haiti to install a Kids Around the World (KIDS) playground at an orphanage in Saline Mayette. There are over 100 children in the orphanage and 310 children attending the school. Most of the children come to the orphanage with at least second-degree malnutrition. Using refurbished playground equipment, donated by the Chicago Ridge Park District, KIDS was able to build for $50,000 a playground that would have cost $225,000 to $250,000 in the United States. Says Julie Rearick, the NE Satellite Director of Kids Around the World:
"My favorite part of a playground build was playing with the children. As we worked on building the play structure, the children always gathered around to watch. I took jump ropes and soccer balls along so I could play with them. By the time the playground was dedicated, I already knew a number of the children. There are no words to express the emotions I felt when those children scream with glee and laughter running towards the playground. I have grown to live by this quote: 'I do for one, what I wish I could do for all.' "