Teaching children to play

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The serious business of playtime.

REICHARD: Two years ago, then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that required public schools to offer 20 minutes of recess each day for younger school children.

CHRISTIE: With all the other problems we have to deal with, my legislature is worried about recess for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade?

EICHER: That New Jersey episode highlights a trend. Children don’t get enough time for play. Scholars have a name for it: “play deprivation.” Play, they say, is good for us.

WORLD Radio’s Susan Olasky brings us this report.

SUSAN OLASKY, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Last spring my husband and I were in Valencia, Spain, for a day. We spent most of it walking. We chose a route through a park where the winding Turia River used to flow before the city diverted it for flood control purposes. We wanted to see the Gulliver Playground.

AUDIO: [Sound of child calling, laughing, running by parents]

Imagine a giant Gulliver—as long as 30 Shaquille O’Neals—lying on his back. The folds of his jacket and pants hide stairs and create slides. As children and their parents climb all over the tethered giant, they resemble the Lilliputians of Jonathan Swift’s story.

AUDIO: [Sound of children’s voices]

Gulliver doesn’t seem entirely safe. Sure, there’s some kind of anti-slip substance on the stairs—but the massive structure invites rough play as kids chase each other around the curving surfaces.

And maybe that’s part of the playground’s charm for children. But in America, we tend to prioritize safety—we aren’t real comfortable with unstructured play, especially if there’s a possibility of getting hurt.

Fear may be only part of America’s growing problem with play. We’re too busy—and too goal oriented. We can think of thousands of things that are more important than unstructured play. But experts think we’re making a mistake. Joe Frost was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin for 34 years—and his specialty was play.

For decades he conducted research on the way children play. His most extended study took place at a unique laboratory: the playground of Redeemer Lutheran School in Austin, Texas.

JAHNKE: Dr. Frost has been with us probably close to 40 years.

That’s Steven Jahnke (Yawn-key), assistant principal of the Redeemer Lutheran elementary school. He says the playground as it is today grew out of those studies.

JAHNKE: He helped and did some studies on play and kids play and research with UT. A lot of that research was given back to playground companies that would redesign apparatuses to put in at Redeemer. [00:04:44] Restudy how kids were playing.

So what makes this playground unique? Jahnke lists some of the elements. First is its emphasis on the upper body.

JAHNKE: So many of the apparatuses that focus on the upper body and the core. Balancing. Most playgrounds focus on the lower body. This one was designed for more things for kids to do with their upper bodies.

There are all kinds of monkey bars and a spider net climber that looks like a Christmas tree draped in ropes.

JAHNKE: They can get way up here to the top, but if for some reason they slip and fall, they can catch them on the way down.

There’s an obstacle course. There’s a suggested way to use it—but children aren’t limited to that.

JAHNKE: When we first put it in we talked with kids about how to use it, and then after we let them go and we saw how they were being used, we were pleased with what they were doing and how they were using their imagination and being able to play and get outside and just run.

And there’s nature elements including gardens and animals.

JAHNKE: The kids help take care of the animals. Help feed and water them. Help clean out pens. Help lock them up when weather is coming. They attend to the gardens and that’s unique to our kids to have those experiences. A lot of kids don’t get that anymore.

While I’m observing, a few children sit under a shade structure. Some boys chase each other around the obstacle course. And girls swing from the monkey bars. The teachers keep their distance.

This kind of spontaneous, unsupervised play may look chaotic to adults, but through it children gain confidence. They exercise creativity. And they even learn  empathy and how to settle differences.

And they experience joy. And that teaches them about God.

David Mathes at Desiring God wrote, “Joy in the heart of the creature corresponds to goodness in the heart of the Creator.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m Susan Olasky reporting from Austin, Texas.

(Photo/YouTube) Gulliver Playground, Valencia, Spain

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Teaching children to play

  1. Vangie says:

    Where is that awesome playground?

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