Remember: You’re Good at What You Do!

ImageFeeling jazzed. With a surge of confidence. My afterschool group was ROCKIN’ today and steadily focused on putting together their social justice performance. A couple girls sat in the corner writing song lyrics on confidence and the importance of finding allies. A few others practiced step dance in the middle of the room. At the table a girl sat writing a metaphorical poem exploring racial stereotypes, building the confidence to turn it into a spoken word piece. Another student is inspired to write and act the script of a news report to tie all the performances together. “Middle school students report problems of bullying, stereotypes, and racism; let’s see how these students respond.” It’s coming together!!

A few months ago I had doubts we’d ever get to this place. The group energy was all over the place; the drama of middle school ever so present.  Yet here we are. And in this moment I find myself thinking: maybe I’m not such a bad youth worker, after all!   There have been many moments of doubt. Multiple nights of driving home in tears, frustrated that I wasn’t making a difference.  Those nights when I feel like a fraud and am grateful that no other adults were present to witness my incompetence.  Perhaps we all feel like that at times. In the chaos of the day-to-day, it’s sometimes difficult to see the baby steps of progress. Hard to trust that it will all be worthwhile.

So today in this moment of triumph, I’m pausing to put the feelings in writing. To remember this moment of bliss. You’re good at what you do!! Maybe next time I’m feeling a tear of frustration, I’ll remember that I’ve seen glimpses of magic. It’s the chaos of those days that makes this one seem so sweet. And yes, it is all worthwhile.


Onward, Amidst Doubts

I’ve been reluctant to write for a while.  There’ve been many reasons and many excuses.  I was rebelling against my self-made obligation to write.  I wanted to actually play, rather than write about play.  I felt compelled yet simultaneously uninspired to add heavy research into my posts.  But also, I stopped writing because I began to doubt the purpose and “mission” of this blog.  I wondered if my seeking play and rest was an act of laziness and demotivation, rather than a worthy cause.  I used to be stirred and passionate about social justice; while I still am, I also got tired.  So I worried, is taking on a mission of play of lesser value?  Am I choosing an easier route because I don’t want to face the hugeness of injustice?  Perhaps.  That’s certainly always a question.  But when I’m being compassionate with myself, I can see that the purposes are integrated.  There’s a need for self-care and finding time for play so that I can be ready to face the hugeness of the day.  And there’s a need for finding joy amidst taking on the challenges of the world so that I will find the motivation to keep waking up and trying to chip away at one more inequitable brick.

When I’m being compassionate with myself, I also believe that there’s a reason for joy in education and youth work so that students will take an active interest in putting their energy and time towards an issue where they can feel motivated to right a wrong.  But I’ve been struggling to successfully implement these ideas in my youth work.  Creating opportunities for meaningful play wasn’t engaging the hearts and minds of my students like I had hoped and anticipated.  I thought I had it all figured out.  Provide meaningful opportunities; make learning hands-on; invite and nurture youth voice and student ownership; create leadership opportunities; bring joy into learning…and if you follow steps A, B, and C your students will be engaged, on fire, and self-motivated to take on their world!  But man, it is not that easy.  I spend so much energy just trying to focus the attention in the room—even if it’s to engage in a fun teambuilding activity in hopes that it will prepare the group for future, larger endeavors.  In those moments I worry, will we get there?  Will we ever get beyond this wrangling of chaotic energy and move towards a collective purpose?

I still don’t have the answers.  I’m not sure if we’re getting anywhere or if this is an answer.  But I’m willing to keep seeking, keep trying.  And hopefully I’ll keep finding the motivation to share that journey here.

A Commitment to Joy: Creating a Culture of Play–Part 4

Similar to the academic benefits of physical education and recess for the K12 classroom, discussed in my last blog post, a case can be made for arts education well beyond that of being fun. Researchers at Harvard-based Project Zero recently released a set of eight Habits of Mind learned through arts education, including the abilities to envision, express meaning, reflect, and observe (as cited in Thompson & Barniskis, 2005, p. 29). These artist habits of mind fit well with the 16 Habits of Mind developed by Art Costa and Bena Kallick that describe the characteristics needed to work through complex challenges, such as “strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity, and craftsmanship.” Art teaches students there can be more than one solution to a problem, design and formation matters, and creativity is important (Eisner, 2002, pp. 196-198). In other words, the Habits of Mind—or the ability to think intelligently through complex and abstract problems—developed through arts education prepare students for the skills needed in the Conceptual Age.

In addition to these important habit developments, involvement in the arts yields a myriad of other academic benefits. Low income students who are involved in the arts are 3x more likely to have a high attendance record, 4x more likely to be involved in student clubs, display a decrease in behavior programs and a significant increase in academic achievement. They are also more likely to attend a 4-year college (as cited in O’Brien, 2013). A recent video report by BBC News shares how research like this has guided the Obama administration to invest $2 million towards arts education in eight of the lowest performing schools in America. One of the schools, Boston’s Orchard Garden Pilot School, has undergone a dramatic change since Principal, Andrew Bott, removed all building security guards three years ago in order to pay for art teachers. The school was once an environment where violence was normal and chaos ruled the halls; now they see students achieve and actively engaged in school. As one student proclaimed: “[art] interests me; it keeps me calm whenever I get upset or mad” and “it keeps me from doing bad things after school” (O’Brien, 2013). Orchard Garden reinvested money and energy into arts education, and in doing so, they provided new outlets for students to connect with learning and relieve other stresses of the day. Art has become their fundamental method for furthering education.

Physical exercise and arts education are ways to awaken the mind to learning and discovering new possibilities—yet reinvesting in joy does not end there. Building from a definition of play developed through this research—effortless joy, voluntary and unnecessary challenge, and bringing about the best version of oneselfthere is an opportunity to re-imagine classroom environments as places that instill a desire to learn. A playful approach to education means that learning is more hands-on, student initiated, fun, and engaging. There is more opportunity to learn through experience and making mistakes. Part of what creates enjoyment is an element of choice—students choosing where to focus energy and which direction to take. When classrooms provide students the opportunity to latch onto what excites them, learning becomes engaging simply by tapping into the natural curiosities of the student. When there’s an element of challenge, the joy only increases. Challenge can be provided through the transfer of knowledge to real world settings, which is the recommendations offered by 81% of the high school dropouts involved in the Civic Enterprises research who said “if schools provided more real-world learning opportunities, it would have improved the students’ chances of graduating from high school” (Bridgeland et al, 2006, p. 12). Providing choice and challenge through real world application is vital to nurturing a desire to learn.

The next post in this series will offer models to begin incorporating these aspects into the classroom experience.



Bridgeland, J. M., DiIulio, J. R., Morison, K., Civic, E., & Peter D. Hart Research, A. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Retrieved from

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2000). Describing 16 habits of mind. Retrieved from

Eisner, E. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. Harrionburg, VA: Elliot W. Eisner.

O’Brien, J. (2013, March 25). Power of art: Can painting improve your grades? BBC News Magazine. Retrieved from

Thompson, M. J., & Barniskis, B. (2005). Artful teaching & learning handbook: Student achievement through the arts. A. Aronson (ed.). Minneapolis, MN: ARTFUL Teaching & Learning.

A Commitment to Joy: Creating a Culture of Play–Part 3

I’m concerned that students’ joy in classroom learning has decreased.  At present, many activities that traditionally added an element of fun and joy to the school day are often seen as unnecessary and removed from children’s regular days because they are not directly measured by test scores.  When outcomes are hard to measure and indirectly tied to our definition of achievement, joyful activities become ‘extra’ work that can be shortened and removed in order to find more time for test preparation.  The availability of quality music, art, and physical education courses, as well as unstructured playtime spent in recess, has steadily decreased in schools—a trend detrimental to skills development for our changing work environment.  Within the first five years of NCLB’s enactment, more than 70% of school districts reported that they had decreased time spent on subjects that were not measured by the accountability standards (Jennings & Rentner, 2006).  In the past year alone, 36% of teachers report they notice a decrease or elimination of physical education, arts and music courses.  This trend was more widely reported by teachers in urban schools and in schools with a higher percentage of ELL populations.  Therefore, many students of lower economic status served by those schools are hardest hit by decreases in joyful activities (Markow & Pieters, 2012, p. 24).  While this trend shows a decrease in some of the traditional play-based activities during the school day, it by no means is meant to be an exhaustive catalog of where joy can live in schools.  

Movement, play, and art education have profound impacts on student learning.  Research demonstrates that physical activity “increase[s] students’ cognitive control—or ability to pay attention—and also result[s] in better performance on academic achievement tests” (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009).  Research by Ginsburg and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2007) echoes the cognitive benefits of exposing students to drastically different activity levels throughout the day.  Merely moving from one classroom topic to another is not effective; a more substantial physical switch is needed to activate students’ ability to take in and store new information (p. 183-184).  One widely known example demonstrating the academic benefits of movement and exercise can be found in the Naperville, IL district model for student success.  In the opening chapter of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, author John Ratey (2008) illuminates the profound effect exercise has on the brain’s functioning by focusing on the success of the Naperville School District—the success not only in students’ health and fitness levels, but also in their test scores.  Physical education classes focus on fitness, rather than on team sports, in order to “get [students] prepared to learn,” according to Phy. Ed. Teacher, Neil Duncan (p. 11).  Since concentrating on activities that increase student heart rate, students’ state-level test scores are consistently amongst the top ten school districts in the state.  This is particularly impressive because the school district spends nearly half the amount per student, yet yields better results.  Additionally, on the international benchmark test they scored first in the nation on science scores and sixth on math (pp. 13-14).  The witnessed benefits caused school guidance counselors to encourage students to take their most difficult classes immediately following a Phy. Ed. period (p. 12).  Although this specific example still connects achievement to test scores, I offer it because it shows the role of movement and exercise in preparing the brain to learn.  When opportunities for physical activity are added into the school day, students’ brains are better able to wake up and take-in information.  They are more alert and able to concentrate for the rest of the day.  The ability to better concentrate and store information affects classroom behavior as well as a child’s perception on their ability to succeed in school. 

The benefits seen within the Naperville School District also make an argument for dedicated school time for play breaks like recess.  Playworks, a nationwide nonprofit, is helping ensure more students receive the benefits of recess during the school day.  Their results-driven model is simple: provide a school-based coach who sets up the conditions for a fun, play-based environment so that discipline issues decrease and students can continue enjoying and thriving during recess.  In the 15 years since Playworks’ inception, they have spread to 22 cities, 300 schools, and serve 120,000 students every single day.  They’re seeing fantastic results.  Over 90% of teachers agree that implementing Playworks programs reinforces positive behavior and curbs student conflicts during recess and class.  Teachers report positive impacts on the ease in which students engage with one another, an increase in overall academic success, school attendance, school climate, and a reduction in the amount of disciplinary referrals (T. Evers, personal communication, March 28, 2012). What they see first-hand can be backed-up by studies cited by Darrell Hammond (2011) in his book KaBoom!: “8 and 9 year olds who got at least one 15 minute break during the school day behaved better when they were back in the classroom” (p. 111).  He notes several studies that connect movement and play to lower levels of stress and anxiety among kids, as well as decreased symptoms of ADHD.  Creating positive environments for students to play helps ready them for learning and supports their sense of comfort and belonging.  This naturally leads to increased school engagement and academic success.



Ginsburg, K. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics, 199(1), 182-191. doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-2697

Hammond, D. (2011). KaBoom! How one man built a movement to save play. New York: Rodale Inc.

Jennings, J., and Stark Rentner, D. (2006). Ten big effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on public schools. Center on Education Policy. Retrieved from

Markow, D., &Pieters, A. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Teachers parents and the economy. Retrieved at:

Ratey, J. J. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Hachette Book Group.  

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2009, April 1). Physical activity may strengthen children’s ability to pay attention. ScienceDaily.  Retrieved from

Youth Work: Structured Programming vs Youth-Led Fun

As a youth worker, I’ve found myself torn between providing structured programming versus stepping back and providing the space for youth-led free play.  Prior to my immersion in play research, I think I would have chosen structured activity every time.  I thought unstructured afterschool programs were wasting the opportunity to offer meaningful experiences for students to practice leadership and connect with a passion.  I certainly haven’t lost all of that vision.  But I now see great benefits in simply providing the opportunity for youth to have imaginative fun.  This is challenged, however, but the fear that other adults expect me to provide a structured learning environment.  And if I’m challenged by this in an environment that’s inherently fun and less structured—outdoor education and afterschool programming—then I cannot imagine the pressure that teachers must face to keep classrooms ‘strictly academic.’     

In my work as an outdoor recreation educator, I believe my role is essentially to make the outdoors fun.  So this summer when a group of 6th grade girl scouts came for a paddleboard lesson, I was ready to take the class wherever they wanted to go.  For adults, the full semi-structured class is tons of fun.  We’re learning a new skill, playing on the water, and falling and testing our limits.  So I started the youth class the same way.  As we got on the water, I started demonstrating and coaching on various stroke techniques.  The girls went along with it, testing out the beginner strokes.  But a few minutes in I heard:

When will the lesson be over?

I really want to jump in.

I know, I just want to swim around!


“So go for it!”  I said.  This was their lesson; we could do with it whatever they wanted.  The girls were tentative…really?  We can jump in?  Once they realized I was serious, it quickly escalated to all sorts of crazy play.  They tried yoga moves and paddled with 3 girls on a board.  They somersaulted, did headstands, synchronized danced with 8 girls at a time.  I spent most of the 90-minutes holding onto extra equipment and laughing at the crazy antics of the group.   But amidst laughter, I gave nervous glances towards shore where their leader was waiting and watching.  Is she all right with this?  Does she expect a more serious lesson?   I really had no idea.  But my argument was that they probably came here to try something new, to have fun, and to bond as a group.  And yes, they’d also become more comfortable on a paddleboard, even if with unrefined technique.   I repeatedly heard the girls exclaim: this is soooo fun!!  I knew I was meeting my goal.  But as we got to shore, I felt almost apologetic and avoided eye contact with their leader.  I nervously laughed and shared how much fun they had, saying that I figured the most important part was to bond while trying something new together.  She seemed alright with it, but I’m quite sure it’s not what she expected.  I interpreted it as she was willing to overlook the lack of structure because of how happy her girls came off the water, telling stories of overcoming new challenges and playing together.  

ImageAnd this week my structured teambuilding games at a community recreation center turned into a youth-led game of blindfolded dodgeball.  The group of all boys had been actively engaging and having fun with structure for nearly an hour.   Then I introduced a blindfolded partner activity that focuses on creative and specific communication.  It’s designed to be fun!  The blindfolded partners would be given directions from their seeing partner to pick-up beanie-bag veggies and throw them at the opposing partner teams, dodgeball style.  The boys jumped right in to tossing the beanies, but quickly had all sorts of adaptions to request.  And soon a game of completely blindfolded dodgeball ensued, where I just got out of the way.  Laughter abounded.  Soon other boys were at the door wondering if they could join the fun.  Again, for the first few moments I was cautious.  I’m ok with this, but will the other adult staff be?  I checked around for permission, making sure others knew that I hadn’t lost total control of the room but was letting the play happen.  Others seemed wary, but assured me it was fine as long as they weren’t hitting ceiling tiles.  OK great—I could share and enforce those limited boundaries while otherwise backing out of the direction.

The point is that in both those situations, the youth were having AN ABSOLUTE BLAST!!  They were having fun under my structured direction, but not nearly the uproarious delight that occurred once I let them make their own adaptions and run with it.  So that’s where I want to leave more room.  I believe that in leaving space for youth to play, greater benefits are possible then when it’s always adult-led.  Yet I know this is not always popular.  Yes, make space for youth to LEAD and take ownership…but make room for PLAY?  It’s harder to assess the value and easier to see as frivolous or lacking control.  I’m curious where other youth workers and educators fall on this spectrum.  Do you intentionally leave space for unstructured, youth-led time?  Do you ever face flack for it, or worry that you might?  What’s the right balance between structure and free time, and how do you maintain it?       

A Commitment to Joy: Creating a Culture of Play–Part 2

This continues a thread started yesterday on creating a culture of play for children.  Today introduces some research on the importance of both organized, adult-led activities, as well as the importance of unstructured free time in child development.  


It is difficult to carve out space for free play in children’s lives when the cultural message continually leads parents to believe they are being bad parents if they do not expose their children to every possible activity to set-them on the track to success.  Even though adults might feel like they are running rampant, the fear is that their kids will fall behind if not continuing to move at the fast pace.  Other parents often talk about their children’s activities; college admissions are getting more competitive and looking not only for high academic ratings but also involvement in a variety of activities; and research supports that organized activities have great emotional, social, and academic benefits.  Participating in organized sports, for instance, contributes to a sense of identity, positive peer relationships, a connection to school, and some students claim that participating in sports contributed to their academic achievement and academic aspirations (Rosewater, 2009).  The benefits of organized youth activities have been documented and widely shared.  And heavy involvement in organized activities fits well with the cultural norm of busyness.  I completely understand that parents don’t want to hurt their children by depriving them of these opportunities.  

Parents should absolutely continue to encourage and support organized youth activities, but should be careful to not push too far without the inclusion of downtime, and especially for younger children, unstructured (i.e. not adult led) free time.  For young children, free play creates opportunities to expand imagination and creativity, sets a foundation for social interaction, builds sensory motor and brain development, and is a natural way to learn how to deal with stress (Papalia, Wendkos Olds, & DuskinFeldman, 2009, pp. 264-268).  Children’s play with blocks of counting, stacking, and estimating helps build mathematical concepts, and dramatic play establishes a foundation for literacy skills as children pretend adult behaviors, such as creating tickets for a puppet show or ‘reading’ the chalkboard when playing out aspects of school.  Play provides a healthy way for children to deal with stress; Kenealy (1989) found that over 50% of children who were dealing with emotions of depression used some form of play activity to relieve that stress in their lives (as sited in Russ, 1998, p. 476).  The loss of unstructured free time, Professor Nancy Carlsson-Page of Lesley University believes, will only ‘undermine the children’s success in school and academic competence for years to come’ (as stated in Miller & Almon, 2009, pg. 23).  When playtime is cut from an early age, children are set-up for a stressful development path.

Adults can easily make the correlation to the importance of free play for older children and even their own lives when considering that often experienced stressful feeling of too much activity.   The current phenomenon of constant academics and adult-led activities has caused moms like Vicki Abeles, ex-Wall street lawyer and mother of three, to worry about the undue stress to their children.  Abeles saw the effects of this crazed schedule on her own children and set out to make a documentary, Race to Nowhere (2010), which showcases children from across the country who are facing emotional and physical health difficulties because of their stressful personal and school schedules.  Indeed, there are numerous studies, several summarized by Ginsburg and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2007), which show an increase in childhood and adolescent depression (pg. 184).  By removing one of the main vehicles for dealing with stress, play, a culture is created that is so focused on the end-goal of perceived success—whether that be an ivy league education or high paying job—that we often fail to acknowledge a different definition of success and spend time enjoying life. 


Up next: a look at play in K12 schools.  



Abeles, V. (2010). Race to nowhere. U.S.: Reel Link Films.

Ginsburg, K. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics, 199(1), 182-191. doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-2697

Miller, E, & Almon J. (2009). Crisis in the kindergarten: Why children need to play in school. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood.

Papalia, D., Wendkos Olds, S., & Duskin Feldman, R. (2009). Human development (Eleventh Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Rosewater, A. (2009, February). Learning to play and playing to learn: Organized sports and educational outcomes. Retrieved from

Russ, S. (1998). Play, creativity, and adaptive functioning: Implications for play interventions. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 27(4), 469-480. 

A Commitment to Joy: Creating a Culture of Play–Part 1

I recently discovered this awesome article on how children in the U.S. are suffering from a severe play deficit.  I also re-discovered this article on how ‘the busy trap’ is self-inflicted.  These articles caused me to reflect back to two years ago when I was juggling a full-time job with full-time graduate school, amidst various other responsibilities.  It was during that time that I felt keenly drawn towards becoming a play advocate, in part because I was beginning to realize the lack of play in my own life as a result of my chaotic schedule. 

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote at that time for a Developmental Psychology Class.  Over the next few days, I’ll continue to share excerpts from this paper, “Creating a Culture of Play for Healthy Human Development,” which provides research on the importance of play and suggestions for how to integrate play back into your life.  Here we go, part 1:


I am getting more than a little weary of my summer schedule.  I feel overloaded, overscheduled, and oftentimes pushed past my maximum capacity.  Any minor ripple in my schedule sends me reeling and leaves me completely stressed out.  I cry easier, I lose patience quicker, and I am so focused on my own life that I fear I am missing important moments and conversations with loved ones.  My time with loved ones often gets pushed aside, as well.  I never have time to complete things as thoroughly as I would like to, and some of my favorite pastimes have been left to the wayside.  There is just no time. 

And I know I am not alone in this.  If you are like most Americans, you probably find yourself rushing from one thing to the next on a regular basis.  We have built a whole culture around being busy.  It has become a point of pride.  When asking friends and coworkers how they are doing, I almost always get some version of: “Oh, I’ve been so busy lately!” followed by a list of all the activities, at work and personally, that are keeping their life in motion.  Just a few days ago I received an email from a dear friend that stated: “Things here are CRAZY.  No other word can describe it.  I’m working like a fiend, so I haven’t had much time to get out and play in the Colorado wilderness.”  It is easy to get caught up in that chaotic twirl and rarely take a moment to check-in with ourselves about how it all feels.  If we do take that time, one might start to wonder: what’s this all for?  Why am I doing this to myself?

One of my greatest fears is that we are so used to this busy schedule, and our minds are so engrained with the belief that the busyness is putting us on a path towards success, that we have started to instill this lifestyle in our children, and thereby remove a fundamental tool for healthy child development: free play.  Parents hear the message that in order for their child to be successful and prepared for school and later adulthood, they need to expose them to every possible activity and opportunity that comes their way.  Babies are watching enrichment videos, toddlers are playing competitive hockey, elementary kids bounce between t-ball, music lessons, swimming lessons, and summer camp, and teenagers have fully packed their schedule with activities in order to build their resume and college applications.  All these activities, while important, leave little time for unstructured play.


And more to come.  Tomorrow I’ll share an excerpt that examines the benefits of organized youth activities versus the benefits of unstructured free time.  The argument is not one over the other, just that both have important and different benefits.