Play is more than just having fun—and innovative Minnesota playmakers are finding new ways to make the most of it
AT THE SHIRLEY G. MOORE LAB SCHOOL ON THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA CAMPUS, KIDS CREATE THEIR OWN FUN IN A MINI-RIVER.
The preschoolers at the Shirley G. Moore Lab School on the University of Minnesota campus are working furiously to stop a flood. “I got an idea! Guys, I got an idea!” says a boy in a red striped T-shirt as he hops over a pump-fed mini-river that runs through one corner of the fenced-in play area. “I throwed a brick in there and it splashed everywhere!” Another little girl leaps into a muddy puddle with a shovel half her size and an announcement: “Here I go!" Even as the kids put away their tools and line up for the next activity, the singing and hopping continue. “Let’s play robots,” one boy says to another. “Let’s play fairies,” a girl whispers to her friend.
“It’s universal and irrepressible,” says Stephanie Carlson, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, who has studied play in Amish Mennonites, urban China, and at the Lab school in Minneapolis, where toddlers learn, play, and serve as mini-research subjects in studies of early childhood education. “Even when adults in society try to prevent children from playing or fantasizing, they do it anyway.”
Visiting the Lab School got me thinking about my own childhood—and my own kids. Back in the ’80s, my friends and I spent weekends exploring the woods behind our homes. We ran around the grounds of a nearby school for hours on long summer nights, climbing trees and playing kick-the-can until the sky grew dark. We had neither adult supervision nor cell phones. Our parents just figured we’d come home eventually, and we always did.
Today, kids have less freedom, between their electronic tethers and schedules packed with camps, lessons, and sports. Even school recess periods are dwindling. Despite accumulating research that points to adequate playtime as essential for a vast diversity of life skills, from memory to empathy, today’s children don’t have nearly as much free time or independence as their parents remember having.
With two little boys of my own, I want to maximize their playtime without being too controlling about it. Emboldened by a recent article in The Atlantic that described British “adventure playgrounds,” where unsupervised kids light fires in tin drums and ride abandoned tires down hills, I regularly send my 6-year-old across the street to play with whichever neighbor kids he can find. But when I think about the parents in Washington, D.C. who were arrested for neglect after letting their school-age kids wander the neighborhood, I wonder: Is my son’s leash too short or too long? What’s the best way for him to play?
Other Minnesotans have been wrestling with the same kinds of questions and leading a variety of efforts to put play back into kids’ lives, both at home and at school. To understand the latest perspectives on play, I visited playgrounds and talked with educators, toymakers, museum designers, and recess consultants. These innovative playmakers hope to give young people the tools they need not only to develop their social, emotional, and cognitive skills, but also to grow into adults who know how to share, respect others, and dream up new ideas—characteristics essential for our future leaders. Turns out fun is more serious than it seems.
Photo by Sarah Rubinstein
Somewhere along the way, our culture seems to have lost trust
in kids and their ability to dream up new ideas, says Jeff Freeland Nelson, who left his job as a lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Radio in 2012 to start Play from Scratch, which sells open-ended and recyclable kits called YOXO (“yock-so”) full of things like cardboard tubes, boxes, and connectable parts.
Nelson is 42, and like me, he cherishes childhood memories of exploring outside for hours with no grownup supervision (in his case on his grandparents’ farm). But he started to feel disillusioned when he saw the toys his own kids were accumulating, including a plastic truck that spun at the push of a button. “It really wasn’t functional as a truck in a sandbox. As a matter of fact, if you put it in a sandbox, it would break because the electronics didn’t like the sand,” he says. “It was a button-pushing exercise.”
With Play from Scratch, Nelson hopes to shake up the way kids approach free time. Instead of a playroom, his own house now has a “make room” that’s filled with paper, LEGOs, markers, tape, and other supplies—including YOXO, of course. His kids, ages 3 and 6, disappear in there and come out with creations they’re proud of, he says. That never happened with the family’s old toys, which no one seems to miss.
The concept has struck a chord, and sales have been growing quickly. The company sold out its entire stock last December after Nelson appeared on the Today show and the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Something is happening here where people are realizing it’s not about putting a pile of plastic and batteries in kids’ hands and entertaining them,” Nelson says. “Successful play comes with engaging them, and they actually learn.”
Jeff Freeland Nelson started a toy company called Play from Scratch to give his kids more opportunity
for open-ended fun that engages, not just entertains.
Photo by Sarah Rubinstein
Very young children are prodigious at coming up with ideas for using ordinary objects in innovative ways, says product-design expert Barry Kudrowitz, who teaches a wildly popular class on toy design at the University of Minnesota (which ends each semester with a theatrical show with skits and costumes). But despite rising IQ and SAT scores, performance on creativity tests has dropped among American children during the past 25 years, with the biggest dip among kids in kindergarten through third grade. That’s a fact worth worrying about, as a growing body of research now links creative thinking to whole-brain changes and future ingenuity. In other words, encouraging kids to be imaginative early in life makes them more likely to be forward thinking later on.
Squelching imagination, on the other hand, is bad for everyone, including grownups. In a recent study, Kudrowitz asked adults to come up with alternative uses for a paper clip. Those who took the test with a playful attitude came up with an average of twice as many ideas as those who approached the test like a work task. “When we’re playing, we’re less inhibited in our thinking, and that’s what leads to discovery,” he says. “The imaginative state of mind is acceptable. There are no wrong answers, and anything is okay. We kind of beat that out of children as they go through an academic education looking for the right or best answer.”
Hoping to inspire both children and their parents to be more playful, the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul is planning a major overhaul and expansion that will emphasize open-ended experiences that have no intended outcome, says Nichole Polifka, the museum’s director of learning & impact. The museum is currently trying out prototypes of potential new exhibits such as the “Creativity Jam” test room, a place where kids hammer real nails into real wood—not the safe plastic versions—or decorate a chainlink fence with shiny textured strips of paper tagged with their answers to questions such as, “What makes you laugh?”
The museum’s redesign team has identified seven skills it wants to nurture, including critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, and every exhibit will attempt to facilitate those goals. “We’re planning on a 100-percent new experience,” Polifka says. “We are hoping to get adults, parents, and children to see creative thinking as a way of being.”
Some have called Playworks founder Jill Vialet a "recess fascist", but studies have shown schools that use Playworks to provide structured, guided playground activities have seen significantly less bullying.
Photo by Sarah Rubinstein
While parents can have heavy influence on playtime
at home, school is another story. From the time they’re 5 or 6 years old, many kids spend the majority of their waking hours at the mercy of schedules and curriculum. And in the United States, many schools have either cut recess time or carried on as usual: doing their best to ignore what happens during breaks from class.
In Beijing, by contrast, elementary schools have recess several times a day, and each time it’s the same. Loud music blares throughout the yard as teachers lead students through a series of calisthenics. Then, they all march around in a figure eight pattern before returning to class. The routine is as joyful as it is regimented, and it may also give kids a leg up: Chinese preschoolers develop an all-encompassing cognitive ability called executive function (the master controller in the brain that governs, among other things, learning, decision-making, and self-control) a full six months earlier than American kids do.
Using recess as an opportunity to learn societal rules through structured playtime similarly guides Playworks, a nonprofit that organizes school recesses in dozens of American cities. The inspiration for Playworks came to its founder and CEO Jill Vialet in 1995, when she was talking to an elementary-school principal about an arts program she was running. “It’s after lunchtime, and she’s with three little boys,” Vialet recalls. “They look miserable. She’s cranky. She ushers me out and starts going off about all the reasons recess is hell at her school. I’m there to talk about an artist-in-residence program. She says, ‘Can’t you do something about recess?’”
Vialet started her play program in two Berkeley, California, elementary schools, installing trained coaches whose full-time jobs were to get all kids engaged in playing instead of gossiping, excluding, and fighting. It didn’t take long for Vialet’s phone to start ringing with inquiries from around the country. “No one called about art the way they called about recess,” she says. “I had tapped a nerve.”
Critics have called Vialet a “recess fascist” for imposing structure on the one free period of the school day. But schools that have instituted Playworks, including 14 in the Twin Cities, are thrilled with the results, which include less pressure on teachers to manage recess and fewer schoolyard fights.
To see how a Playworks recess plays out, I stop by the Heights Community School in east St. Paul to see a gaggle of third graders come barreling down a hill toward the playground. The kids are boisterous after a morning cooped up inside, but before they disperse, they line up behind a few orange cones and listen as Playworks Coach Heather announces their options: cone knockdown soccer, basketball, jump ropes, Hula-Hoops and kickball. “Please play a lot; I know you’ve been sitting all morning doing your testing,” she says. “Get out of here!”
Before long, a dozen students are red-faced, running around the field with soccer balls. A handful hop around the basketball court with Craig, a fifth-grader who serves as a “junior coach.” Playtime ends when three whistles blow, and the kids dutifully line up and head back to class.
The session is less organized than phy-ed class, yet it’s more active and more controlled than my own blurred memories of school recesses, which included a combination of friendship-bracelet making, gossiping about which boys we hoped would and definitely would not talk about us, and occasional games of kill-the-carrier that always ended with someone getting hurt.
It’s also a dramatic contrast from the pre-Playworks recesses that school principal Jayne Ropella used to oversee at her previous school, where too little supervision created Lord of the Flies–tinged scenarios: “Bullying, fighting, pushing, shoving,” she says. “A lot of bullying. A lot of bullying.” She now deals with maybe three recess issues a month instead of three or four a day.
What’s happening at the Heights Community School is echoed at Playworks schools across the country. A study published last year that randomly assigned 29 schools to implement Playworks or to operate as usual found that schools using the program reported 43 percent less bullying. Kids were more physically active and reported feeling safer at school. And teachers said they spent less time resolving conflicts in the classroom that used to spill over from recess. The benefits are particularly powerful for students from low-income families, who may not have access to safe parks or sports leagues.
“Schools are striving to address education issues in terms of the achievement gap and testing performance, but they are missing one of the most critical components of elementary schools: They are filled with children,” says Tom Evers, executive director of Playworks Minnesota. “Children are compelled to play. That’s the essence of what they are. But schools are not designed to teach play. We have to create environments where kids have the space to play and basic rules for solving conflicts. Play is serious business.”
At first it may seem like a paradox: guided play at recess rising in popularity alongside the resurgence of free-range kids traversing hazard-filled “adventure playgrounds.” But perhaps both philosophies can coexist in today’s environment for bringing up kids. At home, when playing with siblings or a small group of peers, kids thrive on having latitude to explore within terrain that encourages creativity. At school, where groups are larger and include a broader mix of personalities, more structure can reduce bullying and enable kids to develop lifelong play skills—all while having a whole lot of fun.