Friday, October 2, 2009

The Value of Play: No Matter Your Age

I wrote this post for my education blog Simply Teaching. I decided to also place it here as I believe movement and learning go hand in hand. Maybe someone will find it interesting or offer up some other ideas!
As a long time and "aging" athlete, I have been interested in the concept of "play" as part of sports. It started when I was involved in a discussion on LetsRun about "aging and feeling good while running". A bunch of competitive runners were offering up ideas on maintaining fitness and health as well as enjoying our sport to the levels we had when we were younger and doing so without injury or loss of interest. One thing that kept popping up was keeping running "playful.” The idea is that we should continue to act like the kids we were; running, jumping, climbing, crawling, and just doing things in the outdoors rather than running a set distance or time and returning home. In fact, the discussions are what first led me to create this blog.

I have not had enough time to study "play" as much as I would like, but I see the need for playfulness not only in our adult lives but in the lives of our children. I predict that in a few years fitness activities will move away from gyms and machines and we will see more activities being performed in the natural outdoor arena as adults learn to play as they used to when they were children. Some websites already promote this type of natural play and fitness, such as Erwin Le Corr's Movnat (Move Naturally) and Frank Forencich's The Exuberant Animal.

"All the science that we've come up with backs up what we used to do as kids."

As an athlete, I have been challenged to undo the effects of too much running and biking and having to spend years trying to unravel the damage, it has done to my body. I am learning that it is not strength training or stretches that is going to rebuild the balance in my body rather it is a retraining of the brain. I am doing this through Z-Health joint -mobility exercises that target the nervous system in order to produce movement that is more efficient and through Feldenkrais exercises that retrain neuromuscular patterns so that I can move more correctly and naturally. Interestingly enough both movement therapies deal with how the brain relates and controls movements. I am coming to understand how the brain, thinking, and movement are wonderfully connected.

And then we have school!

Students become mini-adults and sit in uncomfortable chairs and work on written assignments, many times quietly and by themselves without any movement or fun. Teachers often appreciate the “quieter” and "still" students over those with energy to spare. Then we notice the tendencies of children to act up or lose concentration in many ways as they become bored and restless. I have been challenging myself to find ways to bring play into the classroom as well as movement, without losing the goal of giving my students a superior education. Responsive Classroom activities, greetings, and games bring in some element of play, but it certainly is not enough. The question then is how do we allow and advocate for movement without losing control of a class, particularly when we know that it allows for thinking that is more creative and invigorated minds.

I am still looking. Brain Gym is a program I have heard about that integrates play, movement exercises, and learning. I have not taken the Brain Gym courses, but the movements remind me somewhat of some Z-Health exercises. These movements are supposed to stimulate learning through movement. There are many Brain Gym books such as Hands on: How to Use Brain Gym in the Classroom that I would like to order some day to explore the concept more closely.

I was investigating another Scholastic book earlier this week called Brain Breaks for the Classroom: Quick and Easy Breathing and Movement Activities That Help Students Reenergize, Refocus, and Boost Brain Power-Anytime of the Day! and I may order this one some day, as it seems to be a possible take-off of Brain Gym, but I am not sure. It looks like it may have some good ideas on helping children concentrate and learn better through play and short activity breaks. While I was looking at this book, I noticed another book that I did order and I received it yesterday.

The book, Silly Sports and Goofy Games, contains many games and activities that look like fun and would be useful mainly outdoors. We did play one game as a greeting this morning as we tossed imaginary objects like an egg, a very hot "hot" potato, a slimy snake, and even a Volkswagens at each other. However today was an end of month Fun Friday for the fifth grade at New Searles School so we went outside to a playing field and a group of students hung around with me and played many versions of tag that I found in the book as well as some balance games. My favorite of the balance games we played looks just like one of the games in the Exuberant Animal video above. It was a lot of fun trying out games and there was a lot of laughter and cooperation. I look forward to trying more ideas from this book and finding away to integrate play into the daily work of my 27 fifth graders.

Finally, here is a wonderful and thought provoking TedTalks video presented by a pioneer in research on play, Stuart Brown, called "Why Play is Vital, No Matter your Age." Have fun watching this and then get outside and play!

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