My Shadowing Lesson: The Importance of Play
February 01, 2019
Appears in February 2019: School Administrator.
A wise sage once said, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”
If public schools are the birthplace of future citizens and public leaders, the focus on what it means to be a productive citizen must escape the contracted mindset of today’s education reform. Instead, we ought to cultivate optimal conditions for all children to reach their full potential through education. We have a long way to go to make this a reality.
My experience as a student in elementary and secondary schools in the 1970s and ’80s differs vastly from what children endure today. We are serving a generation of children more anxious, depressed and suicidal than any generation before. We also have more children who are disconnected and disenfranchised with their education since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001.
When I recall my student days in Sayville, N.Y., it’s ironic I’m leading a school district. I was regarded as a student with extremely low potential. I graduated in the bottom 10 percent of my high school class and was told I wasn’t “college material.” I never knew what talents I possessed or skills I might cultivate. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many children today. They live as marginalized learners in educational purgatory.
As a superintendent for the past eight years, I’ve wanted deeply to make the educational experiences healthier for the children I serve. In my first year, I shadowed students for entire days in various grade levels from kindergarten through 12th grade. I wanted to understand what a typical day looked like to students. These experiences changed my life as an educator forever, opening my eyes to what children need and deserve and inspiring me to lead changes benefiting the whole child.
The first thing we changed was doubling the time for recess and lunch. Not until I had lunch with my students and played kickball outside did I realize the short duration allowed for these activities. By the time we went outside to play after eating, we had to return inside. It was criminal! Now our students enjoy 40 minutes of lunch and another 40 minutes of recess daily.
The importance of play, which is critical for a child’s healthy physical and psychological development, is not taken seriously enough by educators and parents. I’m heartened to see other school districts such as Prince William County, Va., extend recess time.
I’m proud my school district also reintroduced the power of free play and the use of toys during the school day in our elementary schools. We reinvested in Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, Legos, kitchen sets and building blocks. We started a play club in every elementary school that meets before school each Friday. We also incorporated a 20-minute recess for our middle school students.
To combat excess stress and promote emotional well-being, schools must offer outlets and life-long methods of coping, such as yoga and mindfulness training. In our district, we believe these activities assist children to develop healthy relationships with peers and adults and to self-regulate emotionally, mentally and behaviorally. We have integrated mindfulness, yoga and aromatherapy (which uses plant materials to improve personal wellness) into our curriculum.
A growing body of research shows that yoga and mindfulness can improve focus, memory and self-esteem and reduce anxiety and stress in children. Over the past two years, my district has offered a yoga elective for high school students.
a result of these practices, administrators, teachers and parents have reported declines in anxiety and increased focus among students. Our emphasis on well-being is a much-needed new narrative that ought to swing the educational pendulum back toward
a balanced state of education’s true purposes.