Each year, on the first Wednesday of February, is Global School Play Day. This day of play was started by a few educators who felt motivated and moved to create an inspirational day for kids to simply play after watching the TED Talk “The Decline of Play” by Peter Gray. In this TEDx video, Peter Gray outlines how the drastic decline in children’s unstructured play time has lead to a great increase in childhood depression, anxiety, suicide, and narcissism.
This TED Talk hit me hard. I remember when I was growing up in the 90s and 2000s, playing in the street and rushing to get out of the way when a car was coming. I remember lining up worms on my grandmother’s deck to see which one I dug up in her garden (sorry, Grams) was the longest. Then I remember rushing to put them back in the moist soil before they dried up. I remember knocking on the neighbor’s door to ask if my friend was home and I remember tracing an ill-trodden snow path on snow days to get to the same neighbor’s house so we could…play.
Nowadays, as an adult driver in the same community, I never have to slow down for kids playing a game of basketball in the street. I don’t see many children outside. I don’t see groups of kids riding their bikes. Things have changed. According to the TEDx video, this shift from playing outside and meeting up with friends to start a neighborhood game has lead to a decline in empathy and an increase in feelings of helplessness and constant worry. Global School Play Day is an inspirational wake-up call.
My third grade class participated this year after I listened to Cult of Pedagogy’s podcast “Global School Play Day: One Day. Nothing But Play”. I heard it only a week before February 6, but I hurried to get my third grade team onboard (which they were immediately) and gain approval from administration (again, they supported this Day of Play instantly).
The day before February 6, my team sent home a letter to families about Global School Play Day. We decided, as a “pilot” of this day, we’d stick to three unstructured hours in the morning for students to play. We were hoping that if things went well, next year (or even later this year), we’d have an entire unstructured Play Day and get more teachers, or even our whole school, on board. To prepare for the Global School Play Day, the students and I created a list of expectations, and we discussed and role-played how to solve a disagreement. I made a “kid watching” table to keep with me throughout the day while I observed students.
When the students found out about this day, they immediately began planning what toys they would bring in (but NO electronics). Some students said they wanted everyone to wash their hands before they played with each other’s toys. Some students said they would bring in crafting supplies. Some students said they were going to round up all the cardboard boxes in their homes and tote those in. Some said they were going to bring board games, stuffed animals, and dress up clothes. Excitement was pouring out of our classroom door.
The morning came and I stood in the doorway to greet students. I watched them walk down the hall and into our classroom laboriously carrying huge pieces of cardboard, trash bags of LEGOs, small human-sized stuffies, tubs of glue for slime, changes of clothes, and stacks of board games. They brought in backpacks stuffed to the brim and barely zipped up with squishies and multiple bags of Hot Wheels racing tracks.
After morning meeting, we began our Day of Play. Three hours of completely unstructured time that allowed students to freely play and solve their own problems. I felt like I learned more about my students in those three hours than I had the first three months of school. Seriously.
I noticed which students pulled groups together to work on something collaboratively. I noticed which students were flexible enough to allow their playmate to have their way, with the understanding that it would be a different person to make the next decision. I noticed who played alone for the entire morning. I noticed who was floating and watching other groups play without inserting himself into the group (Did he not know how to ask to join? We role played this, too!). I noticed who joined the large group under the quilt fort for snack and who stayed outside even though everyone was invited in. I noticed who had glue from slime all of their bodies, clothes, and in their hair. I noticed who was cleaning up games before moving to another activity. I noticed a LOT.
I had one student say to me before we went outside for a portion of our day, “I don’t want to be outside for an hour!” It was only 30 degrees out. Then, when we were coming in, the same student said, “NOT YET!” When I mentioned her earlier statement to me, she laughed and said she didn’t realize she’d have so much fun outside.
One of the most interesting things I noticed was towards the end of our Play Day. With about 30 minutes left, one of my students grabbed a book from his book bin and laid down on the rug to read. Then three more students joined him. After about fifteen minutes, each of these students put their books away and returned to playing. I noted this, too. Were these students realizing when they needed a mental break from play (it is exhausting, after all)? Was that self-regulation and self-directed guidance to regain control? Did they just need a few minutes of alone time so that they could continue to successfully play after? I was so, so impressed with them. It was a bonus that they choose books to help them, without an adult suggesting to grab one and read.
I have twenty students in my class. Over the course of three hours, I had to intervene in one…ONE…single argument that happened on the basketball court. I wondered if the twenty minutes of “choice time” I give students on Fridays had anything to do with their abilities to solve their problems, or if they were just so excited to play they were able to be more flexible than they would be otherwise. Perhaps they were just able to show their social skills best through play…who would have thought?
My team and I discussed holding another Play Day in April or May when we can be outside for the entire day without freezing to the bone. We have great wooded areas behind our school for students to play in, as well as large fields, and a paved courtyard.
Many teachers stopped by during the day and were very interested in also hosting a Play Day in their classrooms. I think the prospects of our entire school participating next year is very plausible. Over half a million kids participated this year! I hope this is a movement that grows and grows to inspire children to play and parents to encourage students to disconnect from the Internet to meet up with their neighbor for some unstructured play.
Want more information on Global School Play Day? Visit their website at:
There you can find resources for teachers, resources for parents, more information on the day, and more! You can even sign up for next year’s Play Day! Won’t you join me?
Have you participated in Global School Play Day? Let me know by commenting! I’d love to hear if you made similar observations, if you’ve decided to do it more than once a year, and how your students responded to the unstructured time!