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‘Best Day Ever’

For Maximum Brain Development, Let Them Play

It’s fun to send a model car down a plastic track and watch it fly off a ramp. It’s even more fun to send a model car down a track and watch it fly over a classmate.

That’s what Matthew Spurgeon, Austin Galle and Logan Jamison were doing recently when teachers at McFall Elementary let their students play all day. You read that right, their teachers let them play all day — but for a very good reason.

McFall students were celebrating Global School Play Day. It’s a worldwide event with nearly 300,000 schools participating. Students can bring toys to school from home: board games, cars, dolls, blocks… and just play. Whoo-hoo!

The benefits of unstructured play

  • Improves cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills
  • Develops self-esteem
  • Teaches creativity and imagination
  • Helps children learn how to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts
  • Teaches decision-making skills and independence
  • Helps reduce anxiety and stress

Sources: The New York Times, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, The Genius of Play, Mom’s Team

The annual event is aimed at getting teachers and parents to recognize the importance of play to a child’s development. “It’s proven play is needed for the development of the brain, especially in a child,” said first-grade teacher Michelle DeVries, who said she saw students play together at the event who never had before.

“Children learn when they play,” said kindergarten teacher Cathy Leaf, as she watched her class spread around the roomand set their imaginations to work. “When there’s free choice, they teach each other. They work together to solve problems.”

The first Global School Play Day was held in 2015. It was created by a group of educators who saw play time being eaten away by things like homework, technology devices and shortened or eliminated recess. Packed schedules can cut into playtime. “They just don’t get the downtime,” Leaf said.

The organizers of the day were inspired by psychologist Peter Gray, who gave a TEDx talk about how lack of play has led to an increase in childhood depression, stress-related issues and the highest suicide rates in history.

The day also was a reminder about unplugging; no techy toys were allowed.

“They’re so plugged in all the time; even in their free time they want to be on their iPad,” Leaf said. “Technology is very ‘I’ focused, and sadly, it’s replacing communication. We don’t form relationships.”

Amya Gator checks on her favorite doll

But that can change when children are just playing, she said.

“It requires them to talk to each other, interact and use their imagination. There’s so much growth in kindergarten. It’s amazing. And the things they come up with amaze me.”

Jaimie Hoeksma’s first-graders also celebrated the play day. She’s a big believer in the importance of play, and said she makes time for it every day in her class. “They socialize with one another,” she says. “They learn how to talk and work together. It lets them be creative on their own.”

Or as student Brody Reichard put it, “It’s the best day ever.”


Global School Play Day

Links to research on unstructured play

The Decline of Play, Tedx talk by Peter Grey

Peyton Morgan, left, gives Cocoa the class guinea pig some loving, while Emma Bowman straightens up a doll
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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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