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Why Every Student Needs a Playground to Succeed

An elementary school without a playground? It seems unfathomable, but it is the sad reality for a surprising number of schools today.
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An elementary school without a playground? It seems unfathomable, but it is the sad reality for a surprising number of schools today. Playgrounds are becoming an afterthought, a "nice-to-have" school feature, but not one that is considered vital to a student's academic achievement.

In Milwaukee, an ordinance requiring all new elementary schools to have outdoor play spaces was recently put on hold after a voucher school advocacy group contended that it "could potentially limit successful schools because some high-achieving private schools do not have outdoor playspaces."

Meanwhile the city of Atlanta no longer builds public elementary schools with playgrounds. Former Superintendent Benjamin O. Canada told The New York Times, "We are intent on improving academic performance. You don't do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars."

I would beg to differ.

It's not just a matter of opinion -- numerous studies have uncovered a proven correlation between play and academic achievement. Increased physical activity during the school day can help children's attention, classroom behavior, and achievement test scores. Meanwhile, the decline of play is closely linked to ADHD; behavioral problems; and stunted social, cognitive, and creative development. Children in Finnish elementary schools -- who get an average of 75 minutes of recess a day -- consistently rank higher than U.S. children in International Student Assessment Scores.

It's absolutely crucial that every child-serving organization -- be it an elementary school, daycare, or community center -- provide its children with time and space to play. After all, a playground without recess or other outdoor play time is wasted space. And a recess devoid of rich play opportunities doesn't do kids much good. Here's how one first-grade teacher describes recess at her playground-less school:

Sometimes during recess I feel like I'm part of a psychology experiment gone horribly wrong. The kids find their own ways to recreate what a playground would and should be providing them, but their alternatives aren't safe. For example, they hang from the underside of the stairs to emulate monkey bars, which is fun until someone coming down the stairs steps on their fingers.

Without any organized, safe outlets for their energy, many of the kids resort to what I like to call "mosh" play, wherein groups of children either run around and violently bump into each other at random. This is fun for about two minutes and 20 seconds until someone gets hurt, or until the bumping turns into kicking, which turns into hitting, which escalates into full-on war.

Our education system is increasingly embracing a black-and-white way of thinking, in which "learning" and "play" are diametrically opposed. "Learning" is the serious stuff that happens inside a classroom and can be measured via multiple choice questions and a No. 2 pencil. "Play" is frivolous, fun, and worst of all, optional.

It's a false - and dangerous -- dichotomy. As any early childhood educator will tell you, play is how children make sense of the world. Just as learning inevitably happens during recess, so should play happen in the classroom. And just as kids need a quiet place to sit and reflect, so do they need a noisy space to move their bodies, socialize with other children, and invigorate their brains.

I hope that Milwaukee passes its ordinance -- and that other cities follow suit. We need to ensure that all students in Milwaukee and beyond have a great place to play. Here are three ways to start:

  1. Parents and teachers can rally to build a playground themselves. Our Dream Playground is a new fundraising and planning tool that walks you through the "community build" model, under which you can rally a community to build a playground in a single day--no experience necessary!

  • If space is too limited for a playground, loose parts--like Imagination Playground, a Scrapstore PlayPod, or a Wild Zone -- can encourage constructive creative play.
  • When space is limited, kids still need to run around. Schools can work with the city to petition for street closures at certain in times in front of their schools, or to draw up joint use agreements so they can access nearby parks and public spaces.
  • Does your child get enough time and space to play at school?