I have a confession to make. But first, let me give you a little back story.
In 2002, I began teaching kindergarten as a Teach for America teacher. If you’re not familiar with the organization, in brief, TFA teachers are placed in under-resourced areas of the country after receiving intense training. Our mission was to make significant gains in the classroom, to narrow the achievement gap. Essentially, I was to raise the bar for my students, then get them up and over that bar.
Kindergarten is much more focused on academics now than it was when we were kids. With math, reading, and writing taking center stage, subjects like art, music, and physical education have been pushed aside. I had quite a job ahead of me, yet I was ambitious. I would teach my students to read, write, add, subtract AND expose them to art, music, and yoga within the year. I’d send them off to first grade well-prepared. Yes, I would!
At that time I taught half-day kindergarten, meaning I only had three short hours with which to make an impact. When I created my schedule, I dutifully allotted appropriate time for each core subject, integrating art and music into academic lessons to save time. I spent hours each Sunday preparing and planning. Really, hours and hours. But it was tricky. With so much to accomplish in a single school day, I had trouble squeezing it all in. I worried I’d never be able to complete the spectacular lessons I was planning. Something had to go.
So, I cut recess.
There, I said it. I took unstructured playtime away from my students in the name of academic achievement.
I realize now what a disservice I was doing to my students. In fact, social scientists are really starting to dig into this subject. They’ve found that children who are given ample time for unstructured play are better problem solvers, have greater cognitive development, and contextual memory. When children have the opportunity to connect with their peers in an organic way through play, they learn how to resolve conflicts and make friends. They get to practice things grown-ups teach them, like sharing, taking turns, and compassion. They learn empathy and get hands-on training that prepares them for life off the playground. I robbed my students of all this.
I think about those years teaching kindergarten often. One of the things that excites me most about the prospect of parenthood is the continuous opportunities for play. I love to play. I love to play so much, I married a clown. But at the same time I worry that my serious side will at some point override my desire to play. My serious side doesn’t like to be interrupted, is very concerned about “getting things done,” and will sometimes choose stress over fun. Boo. I’m afraid that my serious side will turn me into a mean mama who tells her kids to go play when they try to be silly.
What I have to remember is that the benefits never end. Play is just as important in adulthood as it is in childhood. So, I’ve created a few rules for myself (because that’s what teachers do) to remind me to play.
Rule #1: When you hear music, dance!
Maybe it’s just a little shimmy. Maybe it’s a twitch of the hips. Or maybe it’s a stop-everything-and-cut-the-
Rule #2: Never turn down an opportunity to play.
I’m pretty lucky because I married someone who loves to play and makes me laugh daily. But some of the saddest moments between us are when my husband tries to play with me and I shut him down. My serious side can be very adamant that paying bills, finishing an article, or cleaning is far more important than being silly. This simply is not true. Studies show that by taking time out of our daily routine to play, we return to work (or the task at hand) more productive, focused, and alert. So, when an opportunity to play comes my way, I have to take it. Do I have to abandon whatever “important” thing I’m working on? No, but a few minutes to laugh, wrestle, or shimmy won’t kill me.
Rule #3: See what’s in front of you.
We can get really caught up in the immediate past and future. Sometimes we think we’re being present but we’re really thinking two steps ahead: What am I going to make for dinner? Or two steps behind: What did she mean when she said…? Of course, it’s natural and healthy to plan ahead or reflect on the day. But this rule is meant to make me check in hour to hour and see what’s sitting right in front of me. Maybe it’s a notepad just begging to be doodled on or a pet dying to catch a ball. Whatever it is, if I’m being present, I won’t miss it. And as a parent, I don’t want to miss anything.
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