The Play's the Thing

Play: The single most significant factor in determining our success and happiness.
–Stuart Brown, M.D.

I recently had the pleasure of supervising the Elementary recess period. Despite the fact that it was the middle of December, it was 65 degrees and there was not a coat in sight. The Elementary play area is approximately four acres, so the children were fairly spread out.

I was immediately invited by Zoe and Piper to participate in their aerobic workout. Great….. Just what I needed! They gave me a big stick, about my height, and we set off running uphill to a vault over some jumps they had constructed from tree branches, then downhill at full speed, whooping like Indians, pushing the sticks up and down over our heads. We circled several trees, touching them with the end of our sticks as we passed, then sprinted back up the hill to repeat the jumps. I was breathless; my heart was thumping hard, ready to explode from my body. We took a short moment to get our breath back, and we were off again in full flight. After the second round, I politely excused myself and said I had to check on all the children (a fair excuse!)

While doing that, I was simply awestruck by the very nature of their activities. I ran for the camera to catch the beauty of it all. I have long been a proponent of free play in nature. That is why it is a critical component of our mission statement. So before I share a small glimpse of the Elementary recess, I want to share a short excerpt from a wonderful book called PLAY: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul by Stuart Brown, M.D.:

The real question is why and how play is useful. One major theory is that play is simply practice for skills needed in the future. The idea is that when animals play-fight, they are practicing to fight or hunt for real later on. But it turns out that cats that are deprived of play-fighting can hunt just fine. What they can’t do – what they never learn to do – is to socialize successfully. Cats and other social mammals such as rats will, if seriously missing out on play, have an inability to clearly delineate friend from foe, miscue on social signaling, and either act excessively aggressive or retreat and not engage in more normal social patterns. In the give-and-take of mock combat, the cats are learning what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence – the ability to perceive others’ emotional state, and to adopt an appropriate response. In humans, verbal jousting may take the place of physical rough-and-tumble play. Kids at play can learn the difference between friendly teasing and mean-spirited taunting as they explore the boundaries between those two, and learn how to make up when the boundary is crossed. Adults at cocktail parties learn similar social guidelines about how to get along with others, or how to seem to.

The first child I came across was Alyssa who was building a house up against a tree. “I just started to build it today and Pearl has claimed it,” she said. Pearl is one of our White Leghorn hens and sure enough, she had moved into Alyssa’s new home. Alyssa was beyond delighted that Pearl had chosen her home. Alyssa built her a perch, provided food, and Pearl hung out for a good part of recess in her luxury accommodation.


Next I came upon the Sparrows of the Cherokee Indian Warriors, Ayla and Courtney. They looked mighty fierce and told me they were quite poor and had to kill and eat animals to survive. They had just killed a wild pig. They also traded animal hides at the store.


Of course I had to find the store to see what that was all about. There I found Zoe and Piper who had a house/store. It was very elaborate, as was their business. They pet sat for other people in the community and currently had a turtle named Rita (a large rock that slightly resembled a turtle if you really used your imagination) and a dog called Stickley who simply was the end of a round fence post. But this was serious business. They also traded their sticks and rocks. This was good as all the children had stick homes. And the rocks were used for sharpening sticks or just as ornaments, like the lovely heart-shaped one they shared with me.


Next I went to visit the Indian Tepee, which was built by Marissa and Zoe. It was quite elaborate with a gigantic rock that served as a couch to sit on, a soft bed made from dried grass they had pulled themselves, and food (chicken nuggets, a.k.a. wood chips). This tepee had an elaborate system where you had to pull a stick that hung from the tree that pulled another stick (some kind of pulley system). The sticks were decorated with pink ribbon and you pulled them to seek permission to enter.


In the distance I could see Caroline, Peter, Maddox and Marissa playing a game of soccer.


Kellsey (who was visiting), Daisy, and Erika were visiting with the chickens and digging holes for their “natural nesting boxes.”


As I meandered down the hill, I met Jessica and Meadow going at each other with two fairly long sticks. I asked them what they were doing, and it went something like this:
Jessica: We are pretending to sword fight!
Edel: Is that not dangerous?
Meadow/Jessica: Oh no, we have lots of rules!
Edel: What are the rules?
Jessica: You cannot hurt.
Meadow: You have to follow my directions!
Jessica: Don’t be aggressive with the swords.
Meadow: Hit gently and only use light sticks.
They made the rules up themselves!!


Next I went to visit Jacob, Peter, Mason, Marissa and Ayla. Marissa and Mason were taking a break and when asked what they were doing, Jacob replied, “We are scavenging for good sticks for our house and a good weapon for defense against most kinds of invisible people.” I smiled to myself because they were really serious, and I wondered who the invisible people were.


Then I went to visit Gillian who was very busy moving her house to a bigger location. Her house was very elaborate, complete with floral arrangements, name plates, ribbons, and string. Gillian was working with Daisy, Kellsey, and Erika. They were very animated and excited.
Gillian was in charge: We need to make a kitchen, yes, we also need a family room with a table and a fire. It’s like a village!
Piper: Wow! What are you guys doing?
Gillian: Building a big house with lots of rooms.
Piper: Cool! You could build a lot of apartments and rent them out.


Rachael and Madeline were not at recess, as they organized a going out to the Kennedy Center to see a working rehearsal of The Nutcracker.

This was just one 40-minute slice of recess. I hope you can see the value in the time they spend playing outdoors. These children are self-constructing, shaping their brains, feeding their imaginations, and invigorating their souls – not to mention reaping all the benefits of play: the pure and simple pleasure of it. It truly makes life beautiful, fun, and joyful. At Mountainside, we are all about the joy.