The power of play

By Wanda Dengel - Contributing Columnist

You may be wondering, “Why encourage playing in the classroom when children just naturally want to do that anyway? We need to hear more about getting our students’ attention so they can learn instead of play!” But playing actually helps students learn in the most basic ways.

Experts agree that play during the early childhood years is essential to healthy brain development. Not only does it contribute to creativity through the use of imagination and learning, but it also enhances dexterity and social/emotional growth. Play allows young children to explore their world through engagement and interaction. Through play children learn to solve problems and collaborate while developing their fine and gross motor skills. Play yields skills children will come to rely on the rest of their lives.

Playing in the classroom seems to be the right approach for the 21st century where collaboration and innovation are considered of great value when solving problems, some of which haven’t even been identified. Even when play seems purposeless, it can have an educational outcome. Take for instance, the Scandinavian country Finland which gives students of all grade levels a 15 minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. This Finnish practice suggested to one American educator teaching in Helsinki that the Finns were soft on education and that such practices were counterproductive to learning. As a result, he taught two 45 minute periods to his class and then gave them a combined break of 30 minutes. Within the first three days of his teaching experience in Finland he found that his plan wasn’t as effective as the Finnish practice. Once he got on board and began to give 15 minute recesses after each 45 minutes of teaching, he noticed a dramatic change in his middle grade level students. They were alert, focused, and ready to tackle the next lesson after each break.

The way this works in Finland is that the breaks happen at the same time which allows for two teachers to take turns monitoring the students outdoors while other teachers socialize in the teachers’ lounge or other locations within the school premises during the 15 minute period.

In East Asia, students get a 10 minute break after every 40 minutes of instruction. South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong are ranked as the world’s top educational systems in the world, in that order. Finland’s educational system follows in fifth place while the United States ranks fourteenth in a recent study.

The use of games could be one way to to weave play into daily instruction. For instance, teachers have used the concepts of the game Pictionary to increase their students’ vocabularies. Research has shown that games, in general, not only engage students but also help them retain information. Using the techniques incorporated in Pictionary, teachers would divide their students into groups. These groups would then draw pictures of their word meanings as their peers attempted to guess the words from the pictures. Other vocabulary word games could include pantomiming the word meanings in short skits. Not only would this bring laughter into the classroom, but it would also maximize students’ vocabulary output.

Play is not limited to schools and education. One of my nephews is a software engineer for Google, a company which has an enormous presence around the world and is headquartered in the Silicon Valley region of California. The workplace environment of this company is like no other; it understands and values the role of play in emboldening its employees’ creativity and innovation. In the Google environment you will find Lego stations, Tinker Toy type work stations, snack stations, and even scooters to get around. This is because Google understands that innovation and collaboration is born out of creativity and play.

Anthony Pellegrini, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, authored a book titled “Recess: Its Role in Education and Development.” Pellegrini studied the East Asian educational system and concluded that “free play” raised attentiveness in students. “Free play” is exactly what it implies. It is play that is not directed by a teacher or another adult, but rather play that is unstructured and evolves from the imagination and needs of the student.

“Free play” breaks give students a chance to rest and recharge, as well as develop social skills like cooperation, communication, and compromise … skills that will benefit students their entire lives.

It appears that if we allow our students to disconnect for 10 to 15 minute periods several times throughout the day, these short breaks will improve our students’ attentiveness, which is our goal, after all.

By Wanda Dengel

Contributing Columnist

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at