My Grayson

Beyond Fun: Why Play is Crucial

Research has conclusively shown the importance of play for brain development — not only in humans, but also in our larger primate family and throughout all sorts of taxonomic neighborhoods. One can easily find research that rats and mice can be tickled; videos of mountain goats frolicking on sheer cliff faces; and fieldwork capturing bonobos at play in their last remaining natural habitats. All animals need to play, it seems, for a number of reasons, some of which we are only beginning to understand with newly-available medical technologies such as brain scanning and other advanced investigative techniques. While these tools provide fascinating data about neurological activity during play, scientists have been hypothesizing about it for centuries.

Much of our knowledge about the roles and functions of play come from animal behaviorists, whose field observations and lab experiments offer glimpses of what play is “for,” at least in non-human animals. Ethologist Robert Fagen describes two primary (and conflicting) theoretical camps on its role in animals: those who see “biological functions of play as facilitation of behavioral flexibility” (aka, practice) and those who view it as “facilitation of social bonding.”[1]

It might seem logical that these activities would be a way of rehearsing for adult behaviors: a kitten pouncing on an adult cat’s flicking tail appears to be practicing for hunting more challenging prey. However, when deprived of this activity, kittens grow up to be equally skilled at hunting as those who did get to play — but, crucially, they lack the ability to connect socially with other cats and prefer solitary pursuits. Neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp says that such social bonds are not just about companionship, but also a way for the individuals to reflect their understanding of the social rules and hierarchies implicit in their culture.[2] The purpose of play is not solely to connect with others, however. When raised without companions, juvenile animals of all kinds engage in play by themselves or with whatever objects are handy — a washcloth, a stick, or a ball. The impulse to play is not extinguished by a lack of others, thereby negating the idea that its sole function is social connection.

Most researchers seem to share a perspective which combines innovation, practice, and social bonding; play is a way to experiment with new behaviors, a way to imitate what they see adults doing, and a way to establish trust and connection. We are also broadening our understanding of the neurology of play, findings from which complement those three ideas, given the substantial involvement of the amygdala (center of emotional regulation) and neurotransmitters such as dopamine (part of the brain’s reward mechanisms). What we do know for sure is that the urge to play is shared across species and across centuries. We should not deny its benefits — and pleasures — to our children. 

The Four Freedoms of Play


Scot Osterweil, Creative Director of MIT’s Education Arcade, first articulated the “four freedoms of play,” which we do not necessarily otherwise enjoy outside of play:

  1. Freedom to experiment — the opportunity to try things, to be creative and exploratory, and to try things that may seem a little crazy. Some of these experiments are things that make adults’ hair stand on end — physical risk-taking on playgrounds, for example — while some are smaller, such as trying a new game with a playground ball.
  2. Freedom to fail — a necessary corollary to #1, in that genuine creativity and experimentation may not yield the desired outcome. This piece is crucial in that children who feel they are being evaluated on outcomes (e.g., who climbed the highest? who crossed the most monkey bars in one go?) behave very differently than when they feel they are unobserved. The belief that there are not permanent negative consequences for failure frees children to think outside the boxes they see in everyday life.
  3. Freedom to try on identities — the option to be someone else while playing; while this identity play does include role play (e.g., “I’ll be the little sister, and you can be the big sister”), it can also be more metaphorical, as when a child who is generally shy plays with energy and abandon, perhaps even taking on a leadership role. After all, even if that is a terrible failure (see #2), there’s nothing to lose by seeing what it’s like to be someone else.
  4. Freedom of effort — No one is graded on whether or not they “did their best” in play. Unlike the “real life” familiar to adults, there is no penalty for minimal participation one day and energetic absorption the next. (Note that this freedom is also dependent on #2.)

Osterweil’s ideas may strike a chord in you as you think about what kids do when they play, or when you remember your own childhood play. Note that he does not say anything about play not having rules, which is a common misconception about what “free play” entails. Quite the contrary, in fact: much of play is about creating rules and negotiating their nuances with playmates.

Time for Play at School

Though schools are not places organized around play, perhaps they should be. Focused as we are on competitiveness, international test scores, and proficiency, it seems that we have managed to squeeze the play out of school altogether. For more than a decade, there have been countless news stories and magazine articles about the disappearance of recess from middle schools all across America, a sad state of affairs justified with budgetary pressures or a need for more time focused on acquiring skills required by high-stakes testing.

So, given these biological, social, and experiential understandings of play, what is its role in education? And what should it be?

Looking at the American school system, it is immediately obvious that educators seem to share one important perspective on play: it belongs exclusively to young students. Nearly all elementary schools — urban and rural, affluent and under-resourced, large and small — include recess[3] in a daily schedule for students in preschool through grade 5. In fact, younger students (preschoolers and kindergarteners, in particular) are often given more than one recess period in a day. By contrast, recess is extremely rare in middle schools (grades 6-8), and nearly nonexistent in high schools (grades 9-12).

Generally, it seems that schools think that students should become “serious” about their studies in high school, and that middle school’s role as a transition to high school means that recess — that frivolous, empty, unstructured piece of (four kinds of) freedom — must be put aside. It’s as though we share the conventional wisdom of the Darling family in Peter Pan: there comes a time when you must leave the nursery for good and grow up.

Happily, there has been a revival of interest in re-establishing recess in schools that have previously abolished it. However, the reasons for its re-implementation never concern its necessity for development, creativity, or social connectedness. Instead, proponents of recess nearly always focus on physical fitness: our children’s increasingly sedentary lives require that we set aside a period of time every day in which they must move around — and recess is the solution to that problem. Of course, this approach violates Osterweil’s Freedom #4, above, in that it demands physical activity from all students, every day; it also violates #1 in that students are often not permitted to engage in primarily imaginative and non-physical play.

It seems obvious that the universally-accepted notion that play is crucial for child development should be extended into the rest of childhood and not abruptly removed after fifth grade. So what would play mean for middle- and high school students?

Students, no matter their age or grade, have options on how to spend their recess time periods.

Tweens and Teens at Play

 Clearly, more time for recess would of necessity mean less time in class. Though this zero-sum-game position might generate gasps and pearl-clutching, science (and educator experience) shows improved cognitive performance after a period of play or rest. In theory, then, all the effort expended on preparing for high-stakes testing might be better served by rearranging schedules so students spend more time on the playground and less behind desks, no matter how counterintuitive that might seem. Neuroscientist Sergio Pellis agrees, saying, “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less [sic].”

There exists little to no research on what middle school and high school students do with recess time, probably because of its very rarity.[4] However, given what we know about adolescence, it would seem that Osterweil would be pleased with the idea. After all, the primary psychological and sociological work of adolescence is the creation of a new, adult identity, generally through iterative experimentation with different identities, essentially “trying them on for size.” (Parents of tweens and teens are undoubtedly familiar with the bewildering experience of their child appearing to have a different personality almost overnight, only to discard it and try a new one as soon as their parents have become accustomed to the new persona.)

There could hardly be a better time, developmentally speaking, to provide daily opportunities to experiment, fail, recover, and try again, whether that involves testing social boundaries, trying on new identities, or discovering that an effort that fails is not the end of the world — especially if said effort is explicitly part of play and therefore occurs in what is tacitly understood to be a space more free of judgement than the rest of their life, especially at school.

Let. Them. Play.


Perhaps the widely celebrated revival of recess should be expanded into a larger phenomenon, one in which we acknowledge that children develop on a continuum and that they benefit from play through all their developmental stages. There are hints out there that reintroducing time set aside for play could lead to improved social interactions, more creative and attentive thinking, and improved academic achievement and (sadly, probably of most value in our culture at present) higher test scores.

Whether or not there are specifically measurable academic benefits to play, there are certainly social-emotional ones — our children deserve the pleasures and inherent benefits of play throughout their school years; we must continue to offer them that opportunity, both in the classroom and out.

At Grayson, we are serious about play. Our rigorous and challenging day allows regular breaks and the opportunity to de-stress — for all students — not exclusively for elementary-level recess.  During breaks, our Lower School students immediately head to the swings, the playset, or the gaga pit for many different types of physical, creative, and storytelling activities and games. That’s not what we see with our Middle and Upper School students.  After a leisurely walk to our outdoor space, some students choose to sit against a tree with a book, a few toss a frisbee, and others hang out on Adirondak chairs for a private conversation. We want to give them space. Not something designed to appeal to them and define what they do there — but an outlet for play – at the scheduled time of day when it makes most sense:  RECESS!

Play is essential!

Play is essential for the development of the adolescent mind, yet it is quite common that there are limited opportunities for tweens and teens for free play when they may need it most. We invite you to visit our school to learn more about how a challenging and rigorous academic program is enhanced by having recess continue through grade 12.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *