To the Editor:
The Every Student Succeeds Act is already receiving praise, and some criticism, for letting teachers and schools decide how to test achievement (“Experts Wary of Interim Tests for Annual Score”). Something is still missing from how we view education, however: the role of play.
Many developmental psychologists agree that active, creative play is the real key to learning. Often, U.S. education policies do not reflect this, and neither do many school grounds. If play is so important to learning, then school grounds should be seen as valuable assets. Instead, they are often covered in expanses of close-cut grass or asphalt, or extensive but relatively unimaginative jungle gyms.
These playgrounds favor physically competitive activities like ball games and climbing. While these are important for students’ development, what about the kind of creative play that fosters imagination, communication, curiosity, and problem-solving? Natural playgrounds—those that incorporate water, plantings (other than grass), loose objects with which to play and build, and places to explore—offer a wider range of development potential to kids who play on them.
The more children can manipulate their environment, the more imaginative they can get with how they play. With props, or loose objects, children can build houses or boats, make miniature scenes, or create temporary works of art. Loose objects have the tendency to become whatever a child wants them to become. This is not always (but can be) true of larger, less movable structures.
Including building materials in playgrounds also helps children learn construction skills and the properties of materials, and can foster problem-solving and cooperation. Other natural loose parts like soil, seed pods, and pine cones provide rich sensory input.
Such playground elements also create interesting spaces for hands-on class-time learning, promote students’ physical and mental health, foster ecological diversity and community development, and provide sustainability potential for school grounds.
Natural playgrounds are a clear win for students and communities. The real question is why every school doesn’t have one.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Building Creativity on the Playground