On a normal school day, a child will learn math, language arts, social studies, French, arts, religion, or music, among other subjects. However, amongst all the educational learning, we must not forget the other way that will allow a child’s brain to grow: imaginative, free play.
Many studies have shown that giving children the time for imaginative play has actually led to better educational success. Recess is important, after all. Scientifically, how does imaginative play lead to a better education? According to NPR.org, when a child engages in free play, there are changes that occur in connections in the neurons at the front end of the brain. These changes in the prefrontal cortex are critical because “during childhood [it will] help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, [and it] is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.” (NPR.org) According to studies, the only way a child can build up these connections is through free-play. Students are creating their own games, and their own rules among social interactions with their peers. This can be done with a simple half-hour of free play. Many results have been concluded that free-play leads to better academic success, as well as social skills. Skills that have been developed at Grade 3 are said to continue to last throughout their school years for the most part.
One thing to remember is that physical education is not a substitute for free-play. Phys Ed has rules and structure, whereas free-play only has the rules that the students come up with themselves. Phys Ed is great to release energy and get active, however it does not have the same effects as free-play does on the brain. When students engage in play, they are deciding what they want to do and how they want to do it; it is all a negotiation made by the students’ themselves- no rules are imposed by a teacher or educator.
Breaks during a tutoring session can also lead to better success. Giving 5-10 minute breaks over an hour, or hour and a half lesson will allow for the student to relax and wander off into their own imagination. When they must come back to work, those few minutes can feel refreshing, and they will feel more motivated to get back into the lesson.
As a teacher/educator, allowing free-play has many benefits. Keeping a student in from recess for whatever reason can sometimes seem like a fitting reaction, however, we should not forget that at a young age, letting the child play may have more benefits than keeping them inside. Some alternative ways to keeping a student in for recess are helping to tidy up the classroom, losing access to an equipment outside such as a soccer ball (although still allowing them to be outside), or losing computer time rather than recess time. There could even be “break spaces” created outdoors that students may need to spend some time in if they need to cool down. Again, most of this is either done before/after recess, or during. We should also allow the students to work towards earning goals; perhaps for every helpful or positive thing they do in the classroom, all of these stars or points could lead to extra recess time. We could also allow students to create games to be played with the whole class during that extra time outdoors.
Let’s remember that young students are just that- young, and free-play is very important for them.