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  • Meredith Shaw

Learning Through Play: Tri-Town Schools Celebrate Global School Play Day




Across the Tri-Town, kids and teachers got a break from their typical schedules to celebrate Global School Play Day on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.

 

The day is designed to honor the importance of unstructured play for healthy youth development. Initiated in 2015 by a group of educators, their mission encourages participants to “allow students ample time for free play without the use of screens, structured games, or adult direction. The idea is to let children explore their creativity, problem-solving skills, and social interactions in an unstructured and spontaneous environment.”

 

For Lisa Salisbury, Principal of Cole School in Boxford, this day is important for kids to experience, and it is important as a reminder to people of all ages. “Global Play Day reminds us that playing is learning for children,” she said. “In today’s educational world of high-stakes testing, standards and rigor, unstructured time is rare.” She said the Cole School kids were excited and engaged all day, with the chance to feel more freedom and use their creativity, imagination and social skills.


Jennifer Roberts, Principal of Fuller Meadow School in Middleton, echoed this perspective, saying the day is not only lots of fun for the kids, but the teachers love it, too. She sees great value in the day because “Unstructured play is often how young children learn important social skills and can help them develop confidence.


“Unstructured play is often how young children learn important social skills and can help them develop confidence.”   — Jennifer Roberts, Fuller Meadow Principal

 

Across these K-2 schools, children engaged in a broad range of activities. They built forts and playhouses, played dress up, drew pictures, painted, played board games, played card games, built with Legos, Magnatiles, erector sets, and marshmallows and toothpicks, played Twister, played with stuffed animals, dolls, trucks, and transformers, played outside, made slime, read, wrote stories, created all sorts of things out of cardboard and other recyclable items, and also played games in the gym that they had learned during class.

 

Play is not only important for young children, but for older kids (and adults, too!). At Masconomet Middle School, Tri-Town Council (TTC) and high school youth leaders co-hosted Global School Play Day with 90 minutes of unstructured play in the field house after school, aided by the Wednesday early dismissal. “Even though only a handful of kids participated, it is still an important message,” said Bonnie Thornborough of TTC. “Simply holding the event is a reminder to kids, families and educators that young people need time to play. The challenge is that youth are often so busy with scheduled activities that they don’t have the time they need to play freely.”

 

Those who did attend the middle school event  mostly played basketball, floor hockey, and their own version of hide-and-seek. There were also some word games played, such as Hangman.

 

“It was fun to see the kids enjoying the time and each other. It was also great to see the high school volunteers really laughing and loving the time to play, too,” said Thornborough.

 

TTC Executive Director Meredith Shaw said “We understand how critical self-directed and self-chosen play is for healthy development. As an organization focused on healthy foundations, our ‘Why We Play’ campaign continues. We are in its third year, and we are grateful for the steps our community has taken to support and foster awareness of why unstructured play is important in raising healthy kids.”

 

The campaign has involved several key community events. In fall 2022, TTC and Masconomet hosted Boston College research professor Peter Gray, who is the inspiration behind Global School Play Day. His presentation What is Play? was followed a month later by a community screening and discussion of the award-winning documentary film Chasing Childhood, which explores how free play and independence have all but disappeared from kids' lives, correlating with record-high rates of anxiety and depression. The film had been screened earlier that year by key stakeholders invested in our youth development, including school administrators, teachers, PTOs, TTC Board Coalition members, and parents/caregivers. In an effort to accommodate busy schedules in winter 2023, the campaign encouraged self-organized Chasing Childhood watch parties among parents/caregivers, followed by an open virtual discussion.

 

In spring 2023, staff at Topsfield’s Proctor Elementary watched and discussed Chasing Childhood together, and in Fall 2023 TTC began hosting a pilot after-school program, “AfterSchool PlayClub” on early release Fridays at Steward, that is partly modeled after the “Let Grow Play Club” concept described in the film. “Our understanding of how best to support kids’ needs for social free-play continues to evolve,” said Shaw. “For numerous reasons, adults can find it challenging to step back and truly allow kids to have agency over their time, but this is a very important step.”

 

In Fall of 2024, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) hosted a community screening of the film and a discussion with a panel of local educators and therapists. Recently, TTC held a workshop for Tri-Town Union (TTU) Elementary School staff during their January professional development day, which included watching a video clip from Peter Gray’s TED talk on The Decline of Play. Educators shared their observations, concerns, challenges, ideas and hope for supporting more independence for kids.

 

Moving forward, TTC plans to continue the conversation among families, educators and other support services in our community. “We are always more effective when we work together. Through new and continued collaborations with others, we hope to facilitate more actions, resources and strategies to help everyone push back on the demands on kids’ time, and clear space and time for play,” said Shaw. “Our kids are counting on us!”

 

Salisbury reinforced this perspective, saying: “Play is the work of children. Allowing children choice and opportunities to problem solve, create, imagine, and build are essential foundational skills for all learning.”


“Play is the work of children. Allowing children choice and opportunities to problem solve, create, imagine, and build are essential foundational skills.”   — Lisa Salisbury, Cole School Principal

 

To learn more about the role of unstructured play in healthy youth development, please check out our Why We Play Resources, including this recent short video (2.5 min) from Edutopia: A New Theory On the Teen Mental Health Crisis.


Please reach out any time if you have an idea, suggestion, or would like to connect about this cause. Thank you! Tri-Town Council Staff




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