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The Need to Play

The Need to Play

We live in an age of false security. Between laws, rules, warning labels, and restrictions, the world no longer operates in a trial-and-error fashion. We plan and prepare. We prevent diseases, track storms. We can answer most questions with a formula or predict anything with a scatter plot. But are we really as in control of our immediate future as we lead ourselves to believe?

In his chapter of Philosophy, Risk and Adventure Sports, Norwegian sports sociologist Gunnar Breivik expresses his belief that modern society has not only developed an obsession with control but also an avoidance of danger, risk, and fear. Breivik goes on to quote fellow sociologist and risk specialist Deborah Lupton, who stated in a 1999 survey that there exists in society “an increasing desire to take control over one’s life, to rationalize and regulate the self and the body, [and] to avoid the vicissitudes of fate.”

The secrets, the mysteries of this world, it seems, grow fewer every day. But anyone who has experienced loss, pain, or failure knows that life is still full of uncertainty and adversity, that life is anything but a scientific formula where one can plug in the variables and calculate an outcome. Yet now, more than ever, our society is ill-equipped to handle such hardship, despite living in a world that is fundamentally safer than at any point in history.

“We raise children, educate youth and influence adults to become softer, with less tolerance to pain, injuries, stress, and problems,” Breivik states at the conclusion of his chapter.

How has this happened? How have we degraded into a society, once saturated in challenge and imminent danger, into a cotton ball of a world that coddles its youth and operates under a pretense of safety? One word. Play. Or perhaps it’s really three. Lack of play.

Richard Louv hinted at its importance in a child’s learning capabilities in his pivotal Last Child in the Woods, a book that spurred the ‘No Child Left Inside’ movement. Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown did a TED Talk on how “Play is more than just fun” and even founded the nonprofit National Institute for Play. Heck, NPR dedicated an entire week’s worth of stories to the necessity of play in not just our children’s lives but also our own. Everyone everywhere is talking about just how much we need to play.

It seems that somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we abandon our youthful curiosity and innate desire to test, push, risk. We forgot what it was like to live without boundaries, when our mind was awhirl with uninhibited imagination. We forgot, in effect, what it was like to be a kid. The worst part about this? Our younger generation is now also forgetting how to be a kid. They’re learning algebra younger than ever. They’re going to piano practice and soccer and Spanish tutoring. Their schedules are as jam-packed as ours with adult-supervised activities. Even brief recess periods are structured if not compromised altogether for more classroom time.

Where in a busy day is there time to simply be a kid? When can our children explore the woods around their house with only a dinner bell to answer to? Our children need to know what it feels like to be a little cold, a little lost. They need to skin their knees and get a few bruises. They need to know that some of life’s most important lessons can’t be taught in a lecture but in its total opposite – during unsupervised playtime.


Free Play. What Is It?

While it’s beneficial for children to be involved in competitive team sports such as soccer and swimming, those activities do not tap into the most pure and true form of “free play.” Free play, or unrestricted play, allows kids the chance to be unsupervised and choose how they wish to spend their free time, be it through a game of hide-and-seek, playing house, or even reading for pleasure. Anything in which the child is self-directed and is not doing the activity for any ulterior motive (except for the sake of the activity itself) is considered free play.
Dr. Charles Schaefer, the founder of “play therapy,” once said, “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” So what is so beneficial about free play? Why should our children be allowed to have recess without rules?

The Benefits

Before examining the advantages of free play, first consider the alternatives. You need only to take a glance at the National Institute of Mental Health’s website to see that just over 20 percent (1 in every 5) of children suffer from a “debilitating mental disorder” at some point in their life. Compared to the early 1950s, five to eight times as many children and college students are diagnosed with clinical depression. Granted, there’s the issue of overdiagnosis among professionals in the medical field, but there are psychologists who have traced the increase in mental instability to another source: lack of free play.

“We may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play,” writes psychologist Ellen Sandseter in a 2011 article in Evolutionary Psychology. Sandseter is not alone in her theory, and the extensive studies conducted on the topic have only supported her conclusions. Children who are pigeonholed into a life of organized activity typically grow up with an emotional imbalance and are often anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed. They feel as if they have no control over their lives. They become isolated and emotionally incapable of problem-solving or overcoming change.

On the contrary, children who are able to engage in free play on a regular basis are more apt to explore their own interests, practice self-control, master their emotions, and cooperate with others. They gain confidence and choose activities that foster their inherent desire to have fun and learn. A study in 2005 conducted by psychologists Anthony Pellegrini and Robyn Holmes proved that, when used intermittently with academic studies, free play caused students to have increased attention, better behavior, and more desire to do well in school.

In 2008, Finland’s educational system blazed onto the world’s radar with outstanding rankings in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), drawing attention to what many believe to be the cause of the country’s high success rate: more recess. Schools in Finland offer students a minimum of 75 minutes of recess a day, whereas America’s school systems provide an average of 26 minutes (and that’s including lunch). Finland now ranks first in the world for science and second in math and reading. Where do we stand? Students in the United States rank 26th out of 34 countries in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. Judging by these figures, it seems that ultimately, kids allowed more time for free play typically end up happier, healthier, and more successful.

Why, then, is unsupervised play not prioritized? One study performed in 2012 by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute revealed that, of the 8,950 preschoolers assessed, nearly half of them weren’t taken outside to play every day. What could lead to such play deprivation? One possibility is that parents’ concerns of athletic and academic success compete for importance and tend to take too much of a precedence. But it seems that even parents who do allot that time for free play aren’t always met with encouragement and support, but rather criticism. Some are even taken to court, accused of negligence by neighbors or local law enforcement. Schools don’t help the play crisis either, cramming in more hours of math and reading and cutting such play outlets as art, music, and recess.

Places to Play

Considering our younger generations are spending an average of five to seven hours a day behind screens, this lack of play stuff is no joke.

However, there is a hint of change in the air. A number of non-traditional educational institutions are popping up across the country with the aim of providing children with experiential education and dedicated time for unstructured play. At the forefront of that movement is the Montessori establishment, an educational institution whose foundation is built upon the belief that children learn better when given organic tools (i.e. stones, sticks, and other raw materials) as well as the freedom to use those tools however they see fit.

Mountaintop Montessori, based in Charlottesville, Va., has been in operation since 1982, making it one of the oldest Montessori schools in the region. Serving children as young as toddlers to as old as eighth graders, the fundamental core of the school’s day-to-day lessons are three-fold: to provide play, passion, and purpose to students by guiding them to discover and foster a curiosity for learning.

“We have honey bees, chickens, a garden, tilapia in the greenhouse,” says elementary ecology guide Patrick McCafferty. “The time [these students] spend in the outdoors, particularly the unstructured play-based time, leads to some really amazing discoveries that are seamlessly integrated into the students’ lessons.”

Those discoveries range from the scientific to the personal, from how to harvest a garden to learning self-discipline. Mountaintop’s campus is ideally situated in the heart of Virginia’s mountains, making an immersion in the natural world relatively easy. Yet even children from the nearby metropolitan hub of Richmond have the ability to take advantage of a play-based education that, like the Montessori method, provides ample learning opportunities within the context of the outdoors.

“The popular term now is ‘grit,’” says Blue Sky Fund Executive Director Lawson Wijesooriya. “It’s like resiliency and similar to self-confidence, but it’s a child’s own ability to believe they can overcome challenges.”

Richmond’s Blue Sky Fund provides school-based, after-school, weekend, and summer programs to get urban youth into the outdoors. Its mission is to use the challenges of learning to rock climb, hike, and paddle to teach academics as well as valuable life lessons. A majority of the students who take advantage of the Blue Sky Fund experience have never left the city limits and have grown up around everything from abuse and drug-addiction to poverty. Wijesooriya says it’s always inspiring to see the looks on the children’s faces when they see a starlit sky, untainted by light pollution, for the first time.

“Kids can’t get the fullness of what they need both to stimulate their brains and engage their learning…by reading a book in a classroom,” Wijesooriya says, citing the organization’s keystone value.

Andrew Holcombe, math teacher and outdoor program coordinator for Asheville’s French Broad River Academy couldn’t agree more. Holcombe says that, having grown up on the river himself, the benefits of using kayaking as a means of free play extend far beyond getting a little fresh air and vitamin D.

“If I can look at a rapid and break it down and work with my partner and make it through there, all of a sudden, math problems don’t seem that hard,” he says. “[Getting outside] opens up pathways in the brain, and I see that every day.”

The academy is one of the few schools in the region that caters specifically to boys and balances four days a week of standard schooling by sometimes teaching in an outdoor setting and spending at least one full day a week on the river kayaking. Holcombe says that the learning is “fast and furious and challenging,” which is ultimately more successful in engaging the children than six hours a day, five days a week in a traditional classroom would be able to accomplish.

Go Outside and Play

While it’s important for us to recognize the necessity of free play in our children’s lives, it’s essential that we also embrace it as adults. If we spend too many hours behind a computer instead of recognizing when to step away and have fun for the sake of fun, the younger generation will mirror that.

Adults need play for a host of reasons, one of the most important of which is to maintain our basic ability to survive. Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown has dedicated his life to studying the effects of free play on the human mind. He says that the necessity of play for adults extends far beyond the obvious, like socializing and allowing us a momentary break from the seriousness of life.

“Play allows us to develop alternatives to violence and despair,” Brown concluded after conducting over 6,000 interviews with felony drunk drivers, school shooters, and serial killers. His findings led him to believe that these troublesome outbreaks all stemmed from the same thing: play deprivation.

Playtime is meant to be fun, but the direct effects from allowing a little bit of play into your day are serious matters. Free play increases our ability to problem-solve, adapt to adversity, and even to learn how to trust.

“The basis of human trust is established through play signals and we begin to lose those signals culturally and otherwise as adults,” Brown says in his TED Talk on the importance of play.

That play-trust relationship is evident in animals of all species, from monkeys to dogs to humans. It’s the foundation upon which all of our relationships are built, from the bond shared between parent and child to the spark between lovers. And let’s face it: all work and no play makes life laborious. When we lose that fire in our belly, we become bored and, quite frankly, boring to be around.

Although I work for a magazine whose motto is “go outside and play,” I am guilty of not playing nearly as much as I should. We’re all guilty. With every year comes a longer list of responsibilities that no doubt are deserving of our attention, but not every last drop of it. At the top of that to-do list, we need to prioritize time for free play like we do paying the bills, taking out the garbage, and mowing the lawn.

No matter how selfish it may seem, no matter how little time you think you have for it, playtime is essential and should be incorporated into our attitudes, our behaviors, and our day-to-day interactions. We need to play for our own mental and physical well-being, as well as that of future generations who will learn by our example. Ultimately, the amount of time we allow ourselves to have fun will only positively affect our productivity, our capacity for compassion, and our overall health. We need play, in effect, like we need food and water.

George Bernard Shaw who, interestingly, abstained from traditional education due to his dislike of organized training. put it like this: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


Environmental Studies Academy
Western Albemarle High School
Charlottesville, Va
A groundbreaking program offered to all incoming freshmen, the environmentally focused academy is structured over a four-year timeframe to provide high schoolers with hands-on learning in agricultural, conservation, and research fields.

Miller School of Albemarle
Charlottesville, Va
For kids looking to cut their teeth on a set of wheels, the Miller School of Albemarle (MSA) has one of the best youth cycling leagues in the region. From cyclocross to mountain biking, MSA’s Endurance Team offers ample opportunities for middle and high schoolers to get outside the classroom, don a pair of padded shorts, and develop real-world experience from the saddle of their bike.

Living Earth School
Afton, Va
Based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia, this nature-based educational organization offers students a chance to reconnect with nature through homeschool partnerships, summer camps, and student workshops.

Grand Classroom
Charlottesville, Va
From Washington D.C. to the Galapagos Islands, the Grand Classroom staff are all about getting kids into the outdoors and immersing them in the setting of their lessons.

James River Expeditions
Richmond, Va
Organized by the James River Association, this unique opportunity for students takes them from the headwaters of the James River to the Chesapeake Bay, a trip totaling 340 miles and accomplished by the joint effort of three 8-day expeditions.

Wilderness Adventure
New Castle, Va
Whether your school activity group is looking for leadership development and team building opportunities or you’re simply out of school for the summer and thirsting for adventure, this southwest Virginia-based recreation center has it all.

New River Kayak Academy
Fayetteville, WV
Now in collaboration with the kayak-intensive high school World Class Academy, this West Virginia-based program offers high school graduates and college students a study abroad alternative – spending a semester paddling in Patagonia and learning about trip logistics and video production.

Children at Play Initiative
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Clermont, Ky
Children at Play aims specifically at that, at getting children outside to play through events and educational programs hosted at the arboretum and by raising funds to aid schools in designing and implementing projects that allow students free play in nature.

The Asheville School, Asheville, NC
From caving to ice climbing, this mountaineering program for high schoolers aims at getting students introduced to the natural playgrounds around Asheville and helps to foster a lifelong appreciation and passion for adventure.

Arthur Morgan School
Asheville, NC
Loosely based on Montessori methods of teaching, this school is intended for 7th, 8th, and 9th graders looking for a holistic education saturated in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The Outdoor Academy
Pisgah Forest, NC
With emphasis on simple living, wilderness leadership, and outdoor recreation hard skills, this schooling alternative is situated in the heart of Pisgah National Forest and is designed to be a semester-long residential program for sophomores and select freshmen and junior high school students.

Ivy Academy
Chattanooga, TN
A typical year at Ivy Academy combines the rigors of academia with project-based learning in an outdoor learning environment. It’s a tuition-free option for parents who would rather their kids spend more time learning in the outdoors than between four walls.

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