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 http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=263

Markow, D., &Pieters, A. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Teachers parents and the economy. Retrieved at: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED530021.pdf

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 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090331183800.htm


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