Sunday, 2 December 2018

Getting Schooled in the Wonders of Play :)

"Through play, children learn societal roles, norms, and values and develop physical and cognitive competencies, creativity, self-worth and efficacy. Play has been described as the work of children which helps them develop intrinsic interests, learn how to make decisions, problem-solve, exert self-control, follow rules, regulate emotions, and develop and maintain peer relationships. Risk taking in play helps children test their physical limits, develop their perceptual-motor capacity, and learn to avoid and adjust to dangerous environments and activities." 
(Mariana Brussoni, Ph.D.)
"To provide for and allow children to play rough without injury, teachers need to understand how rough play is different from aggression, as well as about how to offer it in a safe and supportive environment."
(Carlson 2009)

Every school year brings new learnings for me as a principal - I call it 'wonder learning' because I never get to pick the topic!  It seems like each school year brings a whole new set of challenges not encountered before - and this year, a great deal of my new insights have been about play - who knew there was so much to learn!

I confess that play is something I have always pretty much taken for granted - I was pretty good at it as a child (at least as I recall :) and have always loved the various forms of play my children and grandchildren have engaged in over the years - particularly when they invite me to play too! As a teacher, play has been an integral part of learning and I have long been a strong advocate for playgrounds, playing fields, outdoor ice rinks and any sort of gymnasium, climbing walls or other apparatus kids could have a good time with in every community. Growing up in Nova Scotia, there was no shortage of places to play - including a large community playground, ball fields and both an ice rink and curling arena in my small hometown. I cannot recall a time when play wasn't an integral part of my life, nor my children's lives, both inside and outside of home.

As a teacher, I have supervised play, directed play, fundraised for and built playgrounds (7 of them!), planned for and accompanied kids on many kinds of play-related field trip experiences and, on rare occasions, had to interrupt play that simply became too aggressive. I've regulated play and unregulated play and believe in my heart play should not be regulated. Yet it constantly is - don't slide down these hills, don't climb on the playground equipment with your eyes closed, wear a helmet when you ride your bike, for example - for safety.  Which brings us to this school year and how my education has been expanded yet again!

With our focus on Peace Education, our school has a history of very few school ground issues - certainly we are never conflict free as our very human children interact with each other, but the number of physical incidents are usually few and far between since students usually negotiate the school grounds with a high level of success, given the number of 5 - 10 year olds that are gathered in one place all at the same times of the day.  However, this year, it has seemed like there are more instances than usual of physical contact than ever before, sometimes with someone feeling hurt or intimidated, and that has caused us to take a careful look at what is happening - at first, we were worried our school ground was beginning to be a place of negativity and we wondered why - were we somehow promoting an increase in physical contact inadvertently? Did we need more rules around play? Were our expectations of kindness and care suddenly not enough? 

We convened a meeting of teachers and thought we would quickly be able to generate a list of 'don'ts and do's' for students. Within 5 minutes, it became very clear that was not going to happen - and here's why: play is not about rules, it's about learning.  And it looks and sounds differently for every child.  We can't fairly restrict play anymore than we would fairly restrict learning. So we embarked on a learning journey that is still ongoing, and here's what we've discovered so far:

1) There are many kinds of play on school grounds
This is probably not a shock to anyone but it is amazing how many different kinds of play happen over an hour on the school grounds!  Some children are very happy to play on the playground equipment and they work out sharing/taking turns quickly. Others want to quietly engage in imaginative play, inventing games and stories with one or two other like-minded friends that sometimes last several days - or maybe just several minutes! Still others want to be involved in organized games like soccer or capture the flag or tag - an excellent endeavour for sure - but one fraught with different interpretations of "the rules" in the absence of skilled referees.  A few are more interested in active play with trucks or shovels, digging and moving dirt and snow, building roads and 'bases' and forts and such. Others are highly interested in free play - chase and tag games that have few rules and involve running around, sometimes shouting at each other, sometimes playfully pushing or jostling each other in the course of the undefined 'game' - a time of competition and fun in the competition (think 'King of the Castle' type activities).  

2) Rules are not the solution
When we first began our discussions, we sought to curtail some forms of play - outlaw aggressive play, frame the way the students interacted with each other as rules of play - a list of Do's and Don'ts.  The problem is - what kinds of play do you overrule?  Andrew Lawson, one of our teachers, studied Boys' Education as the theme of his Masters degree and shared some huge insights with us - about how important active play - or what is known as rough and tumble play (R & T) - is to the healthy development of some boys and girls (about 60% of them) for learning. This was enormous information for many of us - me included - to digest. Some of the research he shared with us included:
•Scientists have proven that boys’ motivation to move is biologically based. During fetal development the male brain becomes wired for movement by their genes and sex hormones from the very beginning. (Brizendine, 2010)
•Boys have more difficulty listening, get more easily bored with the lack of stimulants while learning, require more space when they learn, and need movement to help stimulate their brains and relieve impulsive behavior. (Gurian, 2011)
•Significant brain development differences in boys and girls include, from birth to age six, girls develop faster with habit learning, language processing, fine motor skills, and social cognition, while boys, on the other hand, develop faster with spatial-visual discrimination, executive planning related to gross motor movement, visual targeting, and accessing stored information. (Hanlon et al.,1999)
We quickly realized we needed to broaden our perspectives on play - if we had a preponderance of children who needed this physical release through play, how could we foster this safely?

3) Children need to take calculated risks for healthy development 
Mrs. Conley & Mrs. Watterson recently attended a Conference on Play featuring Dr. Mariana Brussoni, one of the developers of the website "Outside"  
 Dr. Brussoni explains:
"What is risky play?

Outdoor play is a basic childhood need and taking risks is a necessary part of play. Whether jumping in a pile of leaves, climbing a tree, or playing street hockey, children are often happiest when playing. These kinds of experiences are a lot less common for kids today. Our worries and desire to protect our kids can result in setting too many limits on them, which can interfere with healthy development. Risky play can have many different shapes but always involves the thrill and excitement of testing yourself and finding out what happens.  Ways kids can engage in risky play include play with heights, play at high speeds, play with tools, play near elements, play with a chance of getting lost, rough and tumble play.

More and more research is showing that risky play is important for children’s health, development and well-being – kids can build resilience, self-esteem, become more physically active, develop their social skills and self-confidence and learn how to manage risks and keep themselves safe."

There is a fascinating virtual journey on the Outside website at  that parents and adults can engage in that has us examine our own experiences with play and how they developed, as well as how we can encourage our children's full development through play without incurring unsafe risk. I would encourage every parent to go to this website and take the journey - it is a fascinating process of discovery about ourselves and our children!

4. Healthy play rarely translates into aggressive play as students learn to negotiate and speak up
 One of the most interesting statistics we have encountered so far on our school's learning journey about play relates to how seldom rough and tumble play, when engaged in by children who enjoy this kind of play, translates into aggressive play:
•Play fighting escalates to real fighting less than 1% of the time (Schafer & Smith 1996).
•When R&T play does turn to real fighting, escalation typically occurs when participants include children who have been rejected. (Schafer & Smith 1996; Smith, Smees, & Pellegrini 2004)
•More injury occurs during playground play then R&T play

We are still on a learning journey about play at Eric Harvie School. Our Lunchroom Staff have been working hard to develop some new approaches to the lunch hour organized games, as well as working to recognize what is appropriate play and what is not, as are the teaching staff. We are developing a set of guiding ideas for happy, healthy play that we are going to print on posters around the school and for the website, as well around the school grounds.  From these guidelines, we intend to work with our students to help them understand how to join in play successfully and also to say 'no' successfully when they do not want to play a particular kind of game at all.  Part of successful play is for children to understand what kinds of play exist and what they like to do themselves when they are on the school grounds.

As we learn more, we will share more with our parents and families. For our Parent Information Night in February, Play will figure prominently alongside Literacy and Math - who knew we all had so much to learn about play?!

I want to thank Andrew Lawson for his contributions to this blog, and to Brian Simmons for checking out Dr. Brussoni's website for us and getting our attention around how own experiences and attitudes influence how we perceive play amongst children.  We've been reading many different sources related to the intricacies of play with our 21st century children as well, and hope you will find this topic as interesting and stimulating for prompting conversations as the teachers and staff at EHS have over the past few weeks :)
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal