Play is also vital for middle school students – MindShift – KQED | Team Cansler

Even the school’s principal, Amy Goodloe, agrees that play is important. “It’s really of great value for students and, I want to emphasize, teachers to have that break in the day,” she said. “We underestimate how important this is as a partner of academic learning.”

Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia made a 15-minute break break mandatory for middle school. At Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Virginia, dozens of students took the opportunity to get some fresh air. (Tom Sandner for The Hechinger Report)

But Fairfax County is an exception. In most communities, opportunities for play and play-based learning decline by middle school and are replaced by direct instruction, competitive sports, and tightly structured schooling. Educators and researchers say students are paying the price. Young adolescents go deep physical, emotional and physiological changes; Playing inside and outside of the classroom can provide a way for children to build healthy bonds with friends and become more confident.

“I teach at a K-8 school, and when I look at these seventh and eighth graders, they’re no different than the kindergarten kids,” said Robert Lane, STEM teacher at Sierra Verde STEAM Academy in Glendale, Arizona. “They get excited when I bring out Play Doh and googly eyes.”

Lane’s lessons are geared towards learning through play. For example, the playdough and other crafts were used as part of a stop-motion animation project in his classroom. Other activities for the school’s older students included building cardboard roller coasters to be judged by the school’s second graders and building a robot that can move around without wheels.

Middle school students in Robert Lane’s STEM class rummage through a box of materials for a class project. Lane, an instructor at Sierra Verde STEAM Academy in Glendale, Arizona, says gaming is just as popular with older students as it is with the younger ones he works with. (Image courtesy of Robert Lane)

“I break them up into groups where they don’t know each other and just give it their all,” said Lane, who also hosts a podcast as “Mr. Lane the STEM Guy.” The activities also give his students a chance to learn how to cooperate, accept mistakes when they happen, and solve problems as a team, he said.

“I want these kids to have all of these soft skills as they prepare for high school and college,” Lane said.

In addition to developing soft skills, the break is a tool that can encourage adolescents to move more at a stage in their lives when they are becoming much more sedentary.

In Robert Lane’s STEM class at Sierra Verde STEAM Academy in Glendale, Arizona, learning through play replaces lectures and workbooks. Lane says this type of work builds so-called “soft” skills like cooperation and resilience. (Image courtesy of Robert Lane)

A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association used accelerometers to record activity levels in adolescents aged 9 to 15 years Recommended 60 minutes a day from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers found that activity levels dropped as children hit puberty. By age 15, they had an average of 49 minutes on weekdays and 35 minutes on weekends.

With such obvious benefits, why does middle school seem to mark the end of both unstructured playtime and playful learning? There are several competing challenges, both logistical and social.

Middle schools generally have more students than elementary schools, and the students themselves are taller and heavier. It is a challenge for principals to find enough space and teacher supervision to look after hundreds of children during a break time. Supervision is especially important because while middle school students crave time with their friends, unstructured times such as recess, lunch breaks, and rotations between classes often present themselves fertile opportunities for bullying.

Unstructured play and play-based learning are typically abandoned by middle school, but experts say teens, like younger students, need opportunities to play. (Tom Sandner for The Hechinger Report)

Fairfax County educators had to find new solutions. “The logistics were a bit difficult to understand,” said Cynthia Conley, the principal of Washington Irving Middle School in Springfield, Virginia. Irving, with approx 1,200 studentsis one of the schools in Fairfax County that has added a break to their schedule.

“We work four lunch shifts and had to figure out how to take four breaks,” Conley said. To accommodate all students at all times during breaks, administrators have opened several different break areas for students, including the gymnasium, asphalt, and library with chess sets, card games, and an exercise bike with a built-in bookshelf.

“As soon as their feet touch the outside, they shoot, throw whatever they have in mind,” Conley said. “I’ve heard people say why do they need a break. If you can, find me an adult who doesn’t need a 15 minute break during their workday. Everyone pauses to look away from the screen for a bit.”

Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Virginia offers several popular games like Connect 4 for students who want to play indoors during their 15-minute break. (Tom Sandner for The Hechinger Report)

An additional challenge is that middle school students don’t think like younger students. Some exercise equipment will not be enough to keep all or even most of them busy.

Rebecca London, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has examined what happens when educators add breaks or breaks for middle school students. In middle schools, she observed, physical activity is often dominated by older boys. Younger boys and girls, even athletes, tended to spend their breaks walking and talking unless schools made special efforts to organize activities that would attract them.

A powerful way to do this is for adults to play with students, although teens sometimes act like they want to get away from adults.

Adolescents often respond warmly when adults play with them, and the presence of adults often creates a safe space for those who are more timid or less athletic, researchers say. (Tom Sandner for The Hechinger Report)

“Once the adults start playing, the kids want to play,” London said. “Children naturally crave it. It’s an opportunity for children to be seen as experts or leaders.” A warm presence from adults also makes the situation safer for students who may not be sports stars.

“For all of these reasons, it’s great to have adults out there running games and engaging with students in different ways,” she said.

Fairfax County introduced a middle school break for the 2021-22 school year. Last April, the school board voted to make the break mandatory for all middle schools in the district from 2022-23. district politics for elementary school students at least 30 minutes break per day over two segments. There is no break policy in the district for high school students.

Students watch a kickball game during recess at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Virginia. Fairfax County schools introduced recess time for all of their middle schools starting in the 2022-23 school year. (Tom Sandner for The Hechinger Report)

Supporters of the change say it fills a real need. “All of our students need some time to rejuvenate,” said Ricardy Anderson, one of the school board’s recess policy advocates and a former middle school principal. “We have middle school students who come into the building at 7:15 a.m. and don’t leave the building until 2:30 a.m.”

Anderson said that’s why it’s so important for students to “have a little freedom to do what they want to do — to be free from the noise of the cafeteria. just to get some fresh air, just to have a little break in the day. The outdoor component is even more important.”

Parents of primary school children are often the driving force behind recess policies, but London, the sociology professor, hasn’t seen the same level of energy behind older students’ recesses. She believes the isolation children have experienced during the first phase of the pandemic makes break time even more important. “It will take a long time for these children to fully recover,” she said. “We may need more play opportunities for older children.”

Two students work on a stop-motion animation project in Robert Lane’s STEAM class at Sierra Verde STEAM Academy in Glendale, Arizona. (Image courtesy of Robert Lane)

Lane of Sierra STEAM Academy said another obstacle could be parents and school administrators who may not see the importance of learning through play.

“Teachers are under so much pressure to get to a certain point,” he said, and they’re under a microscope, too. Parents may not understand why classroom time is devoted to learning through play as opposed to, for example, more explicit academic activities.

Seventh and eighth graders spend a quarter each year doing hands-on projects in his classroom, which adds up to a semester of active learning. These activities allow students to explore their passions and also to understand why failure is part of learning, Lane said. “It’s a K-8 thing, campus-wide. We don’t get frustrated. We’re coming back, we’re playing smarter. And the seventh and eighth graders crave it.”

With Rocky Run Middle having to accommodate hundreds of students during its mandatory break time, administrators are opening several spaces, including the gym. (Tom Sandner for The Hechinger Report)

Despite the difficulties that might come with figuring out how to squeeze the game into the sixth form, London said school leaders have the advantage of a number of opinionated experts – the students themselves.

“When you start a break, you should ask your students what they want to do during that time,” he said. “You can even start a school climate task force; The students who volunteer to help reflect on this time can be recruited as leaders. They know what they need.”

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