Have We Overlooked the Power of Play?

“These kids are always outside," I noted to my hubby not long after moving to a small village in the countryside in Germany. Out our new kitchen window, a small spielplatz (playground) is visible down the road in our neighborhood. A few houses down, a walking trail, about a mile long, connects our village to the next village and the spielplatz attracts children and youth from both villages. Even though it was during the school year in the middle of the day, I would see school aged kids swinging, riding bikes, and frolicking around the area. At first it struck me as odd--why are these kids not in school?? (watching the kids play as we ate lunch)--and then the sight became a breath of fresh air, I’m so glad to see kids playing outside and not looking at a screen.

It seemed to me that these kids were more independent --six-year-old kids were riding their bikes to the playground. These kids also seemed much better at problem solving. Even with no adults around, groups of kids would work out arguments amongst themselves. I soon learned that the school day in Germany is much shorter than in America, and these kids spend more time being social and playing outside than their American counterparts.

I wonder if the lack of time spent in school effects academic performance?

Eventually, my oldest daughter got enrolled in the German preschool system - kindergarten. The real authentic kindergarten since it’s a German word we Americans borrowed! Another non-German mother had a child who started about the same time as my daughter, and after a month she pulled her son out because it was “like recess all day long” and he (being 4 years old) needs to be actually learning things like letters and numbers to get him ready for school, she told me. However, I remembered all those impressions of how independent and good at solving problems my German neighborhood kids are.

Maybe the Germans understand and value something we as Americans have let slip by…the power of unstructured play and being outside, letting kids be kids.

This became even more evident as I had a yearly progress report meeting with my daughter’s teacher at her kindergarten. We’ve been in the system for a year now, so I was eager to see how the meeting was going to go and what progress we would be discussing. My interest was peaked when the teacher, a few days before the meeting, gave me a little treasure chest with about twenty small slips of paper and asked me to bring it to the meeting with positive words describing my daughter. Being a teacher myself and having worked in both the elementary school and early education developmental centers, I had been on the teacher side of these meetings scores of times, but this time was different--as a parent--and also as an American parent raising her daughter in a foreign culture, so I knew I was in for a real in-depth look into a cornerstone piece of the German culture--how they educate and evaluate their youngest minds. So, going in, I was prepared to discuss the most relevant issue to educating the 4 year olds little mind---building and expanding her German vocabulary. Of course, cognitive development was the most important thing and what we would be discussing…Boy, did I miss the mark on that one. Yes, of course we discussed the acquisition of German and cognitive developments, but it was clear that her teacher was MUCH MORE interested in my daughter as a whole person developing socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively than just things that can be measured quantitatively, like colors, numbers, letters, and so forth.

This idea of a whole person development seems to be in stark contrast to the almost sole focus on cognitive develop that pervades the American school system. We seem so focused on measuring quantitative data from standardized tests, and in doing so, have we lost something of educating the whole child in the process? Even as young as preschool??

Germany, Finland, and many other European countries don’t even start formally educating their children until age 6 (what we think of as first grade age) and spend fewer hours a day in school than American students. Finland boast one the highest literacy rates in the world, and even with only half a day in the classroom, they still manage to take a 15 minute recess every 45 minutes during the school day. In contrast, the growing trend in American schools is to increase instructional time during the day and cut back on recess time.

So where is the balance? Outside play is extremely important and too often de-emphasized in an academic setting. Could playing outdoors and spending less time in the classroom actually help schools achieve academic performance goals?? Pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, writes about her observations WHY CHILDREN FIDGET: and what we can do about it.

Need some help guiding your little ones moving away from the screen? Check out these posts for “Fun & Easy DIY Play Ideas for Kids" and “10 Outside Activities for Kids." Not enough ideas? A simple search for “kids play ideas” on Pinterest revealed oodles of great ways to get little ones moving and using their imagination, problem solving, and learning something new!

Want some specific ideas of how to play with your kids inspired by what we've observed here in Germany? Read my article "10 Simple Ways to Connect with Your Kids Outdoors.”

It definitely won’t hurt to take the initiative as a caregiver of a young child by turning off the screen and letting them explore the great outdoors; let him climb a tree, or let her roll down the hill. Spend quality time together by walking to the playground and swing on the monkey bars. How about pulling out and playing some of your favorite games from childhood, like hopscotch or Red Rover?? 

Top image of playground in Dortmund, Germany via here"Go Play Outside” poster by artist Katie Daisy on Etsy. Tile image of kids in creek via here.

Do you feel like your kids would benefit from more play? Do you think there are things that other countries are doing right in their school systems which we would benefit from by applying here in the USA as well? Share your thoughts with us by following us on Twitter and tweeting @CampMakery!