Importance of Unstructured Play Demonstrates Value of Brain Science

It seems improbable that children can concentrate in class right after spending 20 minutes running around the playground. But, it’s actually true.

Dr. Bob Murray, the lead author of “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” a 2013 policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, said his research shows that children perform better on academic and cognitive activities after returning from a break of unstructured activity. During a National Public Radio story, Murray also argued that children learn critical communication, negotiation, and problem solving skills through unstructured play.

Unfortunately, over the past decade, public schools across the country have been forced to shorten recess time or eliminate it entirely to meet testing requirements of No Child Left Behind and accommodate budgets. In low-income settings and urban environments, despite the desperate need for healthy and safe opportunities for children, recess and play have disappeared at high rates.

The skills that children learn through recess and unstructured play are essential to the development of healthy adult executive functioning skills such as memory, reasoning, and problem solving. Research has shown that children who have sharpened social and emotional skills are more likely to graduate from college and secure higher paying jobs. In fact, the argument could be made that engaging young children in activities to build social emotional intelligence is far more critical than teaching them cognitive based skills.

As the growing body of brain science research helps us better understand which activities and circumstances strengthen and support healthy brain development, we must take notice and use the findings to inform and improve how we nurture our children and support low-income families and communities.

This is the pivotal role of the 15 human-serving organizations in the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities’ Change in Mind initiative. They are working to take brain science research related to a variety of issues and integrate it into their organizations and the systems with which they intersect daily. They will identify policies and practices aligned with brain science that should be advanced within our communities, states, nationally, and internationally.

Everyone—from parents, to school administrators, to policymakers—should feel empowered to use brain science research to guide their understanding and choices about what is good for children and their developing brains. Rather than cutting out recess and physical activity from the school curriculum, we should prioritize those activities and invest in play opportunities for all children because we know it builds better brains.

Learn more about Change in Mind.

Written by: Jennifer Jones, director of Child and Family Systems Innovation for the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities

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