Play Research

We believe that when kids play, we all win.

The decline of academic skills and creativity

Play is vital to brain development. It's one of the ways kids learn problem-solving, conflict resolution and creativity— the skills they need to succeed as adults, but more and more studies are showing that those skills are declining for America's kids.

In 2012, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide assessment that examines nationwide scholastic performance, showed that students in the US rank 30th in Math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading. Additionally, almost 20% of US students do not reach the baseline level of proficiency in problem solving, lacking the skills to think ahead or respond to unfamiliar settings.

Research conducted by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, documents another troubling issue. By analyzing scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Kim found that creativity among American school children have been on the decline for the last 25 years. In Professor Kim's analysis, she stated:

"...children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle."
Psychology Today

At the 2013 LEGO Idea Conference on April 9, LEGO Foundation CEO Randa Grob-Zakhary gave a speech on creativity. She discussed the shocking drop in creativity and how, as a society, we are losing out on ways to tackle the important problems. She talked about why creativity sits at the very heart of problem solving, and how by helping people to be more creative can help us all to unlock our full potential. Watch her presentation.

Play is critical to a great education

As global competition increases, it is imperative that children develop a skill-set relevant to today's workforce and are able to approach challenges with creative solutions to successfully navigate our complex, ever-changing world. Critical thinking and collaboration are integral to the jobs of the future, and balanced and active play helps to develop these 21st century skills.

Elementary school principals also overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact — not only on the development of students' social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.

We believe play should be part of a well-rounded school day. That is, kids need to read, write, do math, as well as practice problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity.

We know play also helps children adjust to the school setting, enhances their learning readiness, and indirectly contributes to children learning more hard skills in school by mitigating behavioral problems and increasing academic engagement. Schools without recess face increased incidents of classroom behavioral problems, which detract from learning time. Studies show play also may increase children's capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are active.

Tony Wagner, of Harvard University, cites the combination of play, passion, and purpose, rather than the carrot-and-stick motivation of most classrooms, that best develops the discipline and perseverance required to be a successful innovator. We agree and advocate that play be woven into class instruction to engage students and help them do their best.

Best practices

Schools can incorporate play everywhere, even beyond recess and physical education, and those that do, reap multiple benefits. For instance, The Visible Men Academy (VMA) all-boys charter school in Bradenton, Florida, has incorporated play into every aspect of their learning goals. Since partnering with KaBOOM!, the school has been able to put its ideas into practice in new ways. For instance, students have "solar time" twice each day — once before math and once before English. These 15-minute time blocks of play help the kids focus better in the classroom during two of their most challenging subjects.

Play also enables VMA teachers and students to interact in new ways. When a student is struggling with behavioral issues, he isn't sent to the corner. Rather, he is invited to play on the playground. As the child begins to play and becomes more comfortable, teachers can ask questions, get the student to open up about his feelings and continue instruction in an enjoyable, engaging way.

Innovative communities across the country are also taking steps to incorporate play city wide because they understand that play is critical to a great education. For example, Chicago is rebuilding 300 school playgrounds and, alongside additional instruction time for students, guaranteeing 45 minutes every school day for children to play before returning to the classroom ready to learn. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also working to fulfill Chicago's motto of a "City in a Garden," and has set an ambitious goal of ensuring every child lives within seven minutes of a park or playground.

Nashville has also taken action. Because community leaders believe increased play can help boost youth academic achievement, health and socialization, Mayor Karl Dean has initiated policies to promote play, such as: signing a Complete Streets Executive Order to make Nashville's streets safer and accessible and creating joint use agreements to open school playgrounds to the public after school hours, on weekends and during the summer.