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More Than Just Fun: Learning Through Play | SELConnections

Shannon Stagman

Shannon Stagman is Senior Program Director of Evaluation Services at ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our SELConnections blog series, where we explore social and emotional learning. 

ExpandED school PS 186 partners with NIA Community Services Network to expand the learning day. 

Are play and recreation a vital component of the educational experience? Neuroscience says so. A recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Learning Through Play” reports on the return of recreation time in the school day in response to the growing body of evidence that play is crucial to learning, and notes the work being done to improve the quality of structured play in educational settings.

The piece puts a spotlight on Playworks, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California. Playworks has set its sights on improving recreation time during the school day by sending trained coaches tasked with giving kids opportunities to play safely and meaningfully. The coaches teach students games they can play during recess, such as “line soccer,” which involves constant turnover among teams to make sure all students can play and encourage each other. They facilitate positive student interactions and empower teaching staff and junior coaches to lead structured play in their absence. The benefits of this kind of play are clear. Across the schools Playworks has partnered with, behavior conflicts have decreased, cooperation has increased and students have greater focus and participation in the classroom.

Given schools’ increased focus on social-emotional learning, health and bullying prevention, it’s no surprise that play time is getting more attention. There is a strong body of research suggesting that play is associated with cognitive, physical, mental and social-emotional benefits, and physical education or recess is a logical place to incorporate opportunities for play in the school day. Here at ExpandED Schools, we consider enrichment and youth development activities like sports and arts to be a necessary part of a balanced curriculum in a longer school day, and have seen the evidence that play time positively impacts social-emotional development as well as academics. 

Our research team observes and evaluates more than 30 21st Century Community Learning Center grant-funded after-school programs across the city each year. In doing so, we’ve come to understand that play does not take time away from learning, but rather is a vital part of every student’s education. We carry these lessons forward in our program quality improvement initiatives, helping our partners to emulate the good work being done around the city and by organizations like Playworks.   




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