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5 ways that play helps kids succeed in school


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:

  1. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, peer play has a direct positive concurrent relationship on learning outcomes, particularly for preschool children exhibiting problem behavior. 
     
  2. The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported that in an academic environment, play helps children adjust to the school setting, thereby fostering school engagement, and enhances children’s learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills.
     
  3. Pediatrics also published the results of a 2009 study that found play and recess may increase children’s capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are offered drastic change in activity.
     
  4. A 2011 review of 50 studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that increased physical activity during the school day can help children's attention, classroom behavior, and achievement test scores. Eighty percent of principals who participated in a 2010 Gallup Survey reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement.
     
  5. As a result of a German educational reform movement, some German kindergartens threw out their play-based curricula in order to become “centers for cognitive achievement.” Research comparing students who continued to attend play-based kindergartens instead of the so-called cognitive centers found that at age 10, play-enriched children performed better in reading and mathematics, were better adjusted socially and emotionally, and excelled in creativity, and oral expression.

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.

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Why our kids are stressing out, and what we can do about it


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.

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How to play it cool at 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?

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Investing in childhood makes economic sense


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.

 

Photo by Smaku (cc). A version of this post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

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Why your kids need to play in mud this summer


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:

  1. Squish, squash: Mud play offers unique tactile, sensory experiences that are vital to a child's developing brain.
     
  2. As children run mud through fingers, scoop mud from containers, and create mud pies, they develop their hand-eye coordination and learn about cause and effect.
     
  3. Hold the hand sanitizer: Research shows that kids who play in dirt (including very wet dirt) develop stronger immune systems that can pave the way for better health throughout their adult lives.
     
  4. Mud is also good for the heart, and not just because of all the cardio exercise that it inspires. A 2010 study from Northwestern University found that exposure to the germs and pathogens found in dirt can reduce a child’s risk of cardiovascular inflammation in adulthood.
     
  5. Mud makes kids happy. Well, that much is obvious, but according to the National Wildlife Federation, studies have shown that making “direct contact with soil… has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and facilitate learning.”

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.

Image via let the children play. Check out this wonderful blog for mud recipes and so much more!

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What kids in Moore, Oklahoma need right now


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.

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What to do with bored kids this summer


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:

At home:

Build a DIY sandbox

Bring the beach to your kids

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).

Collect materials for a pop-up playground

Collect scrap materials for a pop-up playground

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:

Close a street for play

Close a street for play

Does your house or neighborhood have limited outdoor space? There's always the street. By petitioning a city to close a residential street to cars at a regularly scheduled time, a community gets an "instant playground," even if it lacks swings and monkey bars. Transportation Alternatives, a New York-based nonprofit, offers a handy PDF guide to help you set up your own play street.

Start a neighborhood summer camp

Start a neighborhood summer camp

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:

Challenge your neighbors to get to the playground

Challenge your neighbors to get to 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?

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Will you leave your children at the park?


Free range children signAre you ready to take your children to the park… and leave them there? That’s what Lenore Skenazy, blogger and author of Free-Range Kids, wants parents to do on May 18, which she has aptly named, “Take Our Children to the Park… and Leave Them There Day.”

Lenore doesn’t want to get rid of her kids. She is not an advocate for child neglect. She is simply talking about giving children, age 7 or 8 and up, a chance to play with other kids by themselves at the park for an hour or two. In her words:

Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle—there are no kids outside so I won’t let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don’t let YOUR kids outside, so I don’t let MY kids outside, etc., etc., etc—which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing!

Here's what the lost art of playing means to Lenore:

Stand around, get bored, wonder what to do, wish there was an Xbox around, feel hungry, feel a little too hot or cold, feel mad at mom for not organizing something "really" fun, like a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, feel bad all around, realize the other kids are feeling bad too, and then—in desperation—do something.

Start a game of tag. Or basketball. Or fairies versus witches. And suddenly, those bored kids who were desperate to go home don't want to go home at all. They want to KEEP playing— with any luck, for the rest of their childhoods.
 

So why are no parents allowed? For years, Lenore has been on a mission to prove that the world is not as dangerous a place as many parents are led to believe it is (crime rates are actually back down to where they were in the early 70s). Without granting our kids the freedom to... well, be kids, we are depriving them of vital chances to develop life skills. For instance, learning how turn boredom into opportunity and becoming self-sufficient.

May 18 is tomorrow. Will you be taking your children to the park… and leaving them there?

Learn more about the day here.

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