Listen to my interview with Eric Saibel, Scott Bedley,
and Tim Bedley (transcript):
In the past, when I heard people say things like “Kids need to play more,” I always agreed, but in kind of a lukewarm way. I was aware that school recesses had been shrinking over the years, and I’d read the stories about how kids in other countries like Finland and Japan play a lot more than kids do in the U.S. On top of that, the time allotted to courses like art, music, and physical education has been dramatically cut to make more room for reading, math, and computer-driven test prep, so kids in general are spending less time moving, less time being creative, and more time preparing for tests. I knew it was a topic worth looking at, but I never got too fired up about it.
I should have, because my own awareness of our problem with play has certainly increased. I’ve watched my own three children grow from small kids who could spend hours toddling around a playroom finding endless ways to entertain themselves into pre-teens who can lose half a day staring at tiny screens. And I’ve seen what happens when we take those screens away, when we tell them to take a couple hours off and do something else, how they flounder around, clueless, completely incapable of coming up with their own fun.
Until about a week ago, that was the extent of my thinking about the problem, a prolonged shrug as I told myself that my husband and I really needed to do better at getting our kids away from their screens so they could wake up those other areas of their brains.
But then I watched this TED talk called “The Decline of Play,” given by a psychology professor named Peter Gray. It had a profound impact on my awareness of how serious this problem really is.
If you can make the time, I’d recommend you watch it. In the talk, Gray details how over the decades, we have gradually taken more and more play away from kids and replaced it with structured activities, academic work, and digital experiences to the point where they hardly ever “play” at all. As this trend has continued, we’ve seen a rise in childhood anxiety, childhood suicide, and a growing number of kids who simply don’t know how to play.
It got me thinking about the emphasis some schools place on bell-to-bell teaching, on making sure our students are never idle, and how this push is doing more harm than good. It got me thinking about how kids in our town can’t explore new sports once they’re past the age of about 8, because at that point they’re “too old” and the other kids have already been seriously at it for years. It got me thinking about how many teachers tell me that every year, they see more and more students with severe emotional issues and how badly they need training on trauma-informed teaching. It also got me thinking about the terrifying rise in school shootings in the U.S., and how we are all desperately looking for answers to why they keep happening.
I now feel a deep sense of urgency about Dr. Gray’s appeal to teachers, parents, and community members to make play a priority again. Three California educators who also heard the talk—Eric Saibel, Scott Bedley, and Tim Bedley—responded to that call in 2015. Along with a group of other educators, they launched Global School Play Day, a full day in February set aside to just let students play. All day long. Now in its fifth year, Global School Play Day has spread across the world. Although one day out of the year isn’t nearly enough, they are hoping that the day will inspire schools to build more time for unstructured play into every school day.
What is Global School Play Day?
Started in 2015, Global School Play Day is one day set aside for students to do nothing but play all day. On their website, GSPD organizers urge teachers to follow three simple guidelines:
- No Screens: Students are encouraged to bring toys, but electronic toys or any devices with screens should be avoided.
- No Structure: Adults should not attempt to organize or structure student play in any way.
- Stay Out of the Way: Adults should let students manage their own play and should not interfere except in situations where someone could get hurt or fired.
Does it Have to be a Whole Day?
Schools can choose to set aside whatever amount of time they want, but GSPD organizers encourage a full day because it takes more time for kids to sink into the lack of structure.
Tim Bedley explains: “When we were kids, how often did we go to our parents and say, I’m bored, Right? We would complain about being bored. I never have my youngest son come up to me and say he’s bored, because he’s got a phone. And so kids never have the opportunity or the experience or the challenge of becoming un-bored. And really, if you only do it for an hour, you won’t experience that.
“I remember our second year of doing Global School Play Day, I had this little girl that talked to me and said, Mr. Bedley, this is boring, I don’t know what to do. And I’m like, Well, this day is for you then, because you need to learn how to get un-bored. She’s surrounded by kids with playground equipment and all these board games and all this stuff, and she doesn’t know what to do. That’s this generation of kids. We need to do this for them.”
Is it Just for Elementary Schools?
Definitely not. Schools at every grade level are encouraged to participate.
“We’ve seen everything from TKs of course, all the way up to Brown University classes signing up to participate in this,” says Scott Bedley. While a large number of elementary schools sign up, he says, “there’s an incredible benefit for middle and high school students. The socialization that’s happening at the high school, it’s really important between peer groups. The relationship building that happens across those peer groups where they might be separated normally when they’re in a class and they can kind of let those boundaries go is a powerful piece of it as well.”
How Can Schools Participate?
There are no fees or requirements associated with participating in GSPD: Schools who want to participate can just do it on the first Wednesday of February. Prior to the actual day, schools are encouraged to educate students and parents about the day and collect toys and games ahead of time.
To help the movement grow, organizers also ask participating schools to sign up through their website–globalschoolplayday.com—so that other schools can connect with them and see how many schools are participating.
Organizations Working to Improve Play for Kids
Here are two other organizations that share the same mission as GSPD and are worth looking into.
Pogo Park rebuilds and revitalizes communities by focusing on their public park spaces. “And it’s not just a question of putting up a new play structure,” explains Saibel. “It’s about staffing the parks with community members to run programs for children, programs for adults, to bring together the community for different special events, to work with the city to create safe throughways for bicyclists and pedestrians, to work with the city to buy up neighboring houses that were drug houses. It’s about a holistic approach to community transformation that makes it safe for everybody, and then the educational and the life outcomes only improve after that.”
Changing the Game Project works to “return youth sports to our children,” to bring about a cultural change in youth sports. “As an athlete myself,” Saibel says, “as a youth sports coach, I know just as so many of us know that the culture around youth sports has become hyper competitive and very toxic, and the effects on kids are really tragic, because about 70 percent of children at the age of 13 walk away from competitive sports. Participating in sports is not about, Oh, one day I’m going to be a professional. It’s about the joy of having a team, about competing, about challenging ourselves, the physical health, the sense of confidence and overall well-being that that can bring about, regardless of how good we are.”
On Twitter, follow Global School Play Day at @GSPlayDay and find more great photos and posts about the day through the hashtags #GSPD2017, #GSPD2018, and #GSPD2019. You can find Eric Saibel at @ecsaibel, Scott Bedley at @scotteach, and Tim Bedley at @tbed63.