Making time to play

| Columnist

This past December, results from the 2009 Program International Student Assessment (PISA) were released to the public. PISA, an international test in reading, math and science, has been distributed every three years since 2000. The United States ranked 20th internationally, and our country’s poor scores have been lambasted by politicians on both sides of the political aisle. Simultaneously, many educators have been commenting on successful models in other countries that scored higher marks on the exam.

A lot has been written about why China was able to secure the no. 1 spot. Certainly, there are many factors that make the comparison between the United States and other countries, such as China, a difficult one. However, perhaps there is still something to be learned from these international success stories that can be applied to our own public education system.

Finland was one of the highest scoring countries on the PISA in all three subjects. A recent article in The New Republic studied some of the education reforms that Finland has implemented. One point in the piece that struck me in particular was how much time Finnish elementary schools dedicate to recess—75 minutes a day on average! This seems like a lot of free time, considering the United States elementary school average for recess is only 27 minutes. Finnish elementary schools also allocate time for arts and crafts, and learning through doing. It got me wondering if we have lost sight of the value of play, and if play had something to do with Finland’s successful scores.

Play allows us to use our imagination, demands creativity and stretches the mind. As kids on a playground, we were able to explore our physical and social surroundings through playtime. It was in these informal settings where friendships were created, and we were able to develop social intuition. Being able to play gave us freedom and independence and allowed us to challenge ourselves. Of course, play was always a lot of fun, but it was educational too.

As Wash. U. students, many of us lead incredibly busy lives. Academics are challenging and cause many students to spend countless nights in Whispers. The whole nonstop-reading-then-last-minute-cramming process can be quite stressful. In addition, many students take on a job, which is also time consuming. There is certainly solace in co-curricular activities, which are often a source of creativity and social interaction. Yet, even participation in student organizations can cause additional stress and work. Personally, I sometimes find myself more consumed by co-curricular activities than schoolwork, for better or for worse.

So here’s what I’m suggesting: Maybe we need to look back to elementary school and set more time aside just to play. We need to let go of the stress sometimes and just act like kids do during recess. When is the last time you played with Legos? And no, not the premade sets, but the ones that require some creativity and a little more effort. Set time aside to explore physical and social boundaries, just like on a playground. Go and explore new places in St. Louis, slide down that crazy slide in City Museum and buy some Play-Doh. Play can round out our academics and co-curricular activities and strengthen our education in a unique way. So let’s be like the Finnish; let’s go out and have fun and maybe learn something while we’re at it.

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