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Opinion: Why We Should Take Play Seriously

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By Susan McIsaac, CEO of Right To Play International, and Sidsel Marie Kristensen, CEO of the LEGO Foundation

The end of the school year is almost here, turning the focus of children away from school and towards of the joys of summer holidays and play.

The summer break comes at a time when parents, educators, and society are faced with challenging questions about children’s learning, well-being, and development: What’s the impact of cellphones in the classroom? Are kids overscheduled? How can we address the high rates of anxiety and learning loss caused by the pandemic? What about the millions of children around the world – especially girls, children with disabilities, and children experiencing forcible displacement – who aren’t in school at all, and are falling behind their peers?

It can be easy when wrestling with these big questions to look at play as an expendable luxury, a “nice to have.” But it most certainly is not.

The act of playing brings very real benefits to children that stimulate their personal and mental growth, bringing lasting effects that stretch to adulthood. The benefits of play cannot be overstated and must not be forgotten.

Recognizing the importance of play is the focus of the new annual International Day of Play, which has been designated by the United Nations to happen for the first time on June 11, and is the achievement of a years-long effort by a coalition of global actors, including the LEGO Foundation and Canada’s Right to Play International.

The International Day of Play extends an invitation to children and adults to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming and pay attention to the awe-inspiring, confidence-building, and connection-making power of play. It also reminds us to consider how learning through play, both inside and outside the classroom, can address some of the questions in education that we’re wrestling with, and promote inclusion, participation, academic achievement, and a lifelong love of learning.

Children tell us we have a long way to go in supporting their right to play. A global study across 36 countries indicates that 78% of children say adults do not always think playing is important. Further, 73% of children do not believe adults take play, and how it can help them learn, seriously.

Why should we care about this, when there are so many pressing and existential questions facing education systems and child development today?

Because play is children’s language, and if we want to support their learning and development, we need to speak their language. Play is how children discover their interests and their natural curiosity, and how they make sense of the world. Think back to your childhood or watch the children around you and see how playing, whether on a stage, a field, or in the backyard, ignites those synaptic connections that form and retain knowledge and skills, release stress, build empathy and understanding, and instill the idea that learning is fun!

The benefits of play for children’s learning and development are extensive and well-documented, and include improvements in executive functioning, language, literacy, early math skills, and social development. Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that children who learn to play well with others at preschool age tend to enjoy better mental health as they get older, while research from the LEGO Foundation found a remarkably high number of studies showing a positive link between learning through play and children’s skills, whether cognitive, social, physical, creative, or emotional.

In an early childhood education and care program offered by Right To Play in Tanzania and Uganda funded by the LEGO Foundation, the number of parents who said their children demonstrated positive socio-emotional skills and behaviours almost doubled after the 20-week play-based program. The children we work with have also experienced improvements in reading skills, more positive relationships with their teachers, and improved their ability to cope with negative emotions resulting from trauma and displacement.

The International Day of Play foregrounds the power of play and its particular importance today, at a time when rates of child anxiety and stress are on the rise, and the after-effects of pandemic isolation still hang over many. In many developing countries where education systems are under-resourced, classrooms are overfilled, teachers are overtaxed, and large numbers of learners are out of school, using playful approaches to help children learn can address many challenges: It can make both teaching and learning more fun and engaging, make classrooms more welcoming and inclusive, support student retention and self-efficacy, and foster positive relationships between teacher and learners that are the foundation for transformative learning.

This June 11, we invite students and teachers, caregivers and children, friends and coworkers to experience the power of play for themselves. Pick up a paintbrush, a ball, a board game, and pledge to play with us. We guarantee it will be time well-spent.

As children head out into the wild world this summer, let’s say yes to play. And let’s consider how putting more play into education can empower this and future generations of learners to meet the challenges and opportunities of our changing world and thrive.