Game On: In Defense of Unstructured Play

On October 29 of this year, the Japanese government announced it had selected Shigeru Miyamoto, a pioneer of the video game industry, as a Person of Cultural Merit, the highest honor a person in a creative field can receive in Japan. Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and countless other Nintendo video games, is the first person in the video game industry to receive the honor.
Known as the father of modern video games, Miyamoto is a living legend to gamers. Having very little knowledge of that world, I first learned of Miyamoto several years ago when I picked up a New Yorker magazine in an airport and read an article about him.  The author, Nick Paumgarten, began the article by painting a picture of Miyamoto as a little boy exploring the river valley and wooded mountains in the countryside of Kyoto where he grew up. Miyamoto explains in the article that the games he invents are his attempt to recreate his childhood wonderment with nature and the discoveries he made playing outdoors.

The irony of this situation was not lost on me. At that time, I was engaged in a daily battle with my kids over screen time. We had set clear limits and they did everything in their power to try and get around them. The object of their desire: the Wii. The year was 2010 and we had bought the game console and video games at Christmas after our kids had worn us down with their pleading and cajoling. They couldn’t get enough of it, but I was ready to throw the thing through the window of a moving car. How interesting that Miyamoto, who led the team that created the Wii, attributed his success as an adult to his outdoor adventures in childhood! The man responsible for enticing my kids to stay indoors and stare at a screen developed his creative genius by playing outside.

While the Wii is a relic now, technology has produced a myriad of attractions that appeal to kids.  While there are many screen-based activities that encourage problem-solving and spatial skills, too often children become passive consumers of digital content. When that happens, kids are missing out on the kind of discovery and play that is essential for healthy development. The American Association of Pediatrics issued a report last summer urging parents to support unstructured play for children. Whether it’s physical play, outdoors or indoors play, social or pretend play, kids require the time and space to make things up as they go.

In the Lower School, we have been intentional about carving out time for unstructured play and exploration during the school day. Our pre-kindergarten students begin their day with a full hour of play in the classrooms where they have access to building materials, arts and craft supplies, puzzles, games, books, and props for dramatic play. Students are free to explore whatever interests them and choose where they play and who they play with. Pre-k students enjoy an outdoor recess later in the day and another opportunity for unstructured play at the end of the day. Even after students leave pre-k behind, opportunities for play persist throughout the Lower School. Every grade takes a snack/recess break in the mornings and has outdoor recess after lunch. Within our academic learning, exploratory learning opportunities abound. While there are specific learning objectives in these situations, the process includes time for students to wonder, tinker, and discover things on their own.

We protect playtime for our students because we know it is time well spent. What happens during play that is so important for our girls’ development? Spend some time on the playground and the benefits of play are evident. Girls use their imaginations to create and explore worlds they can manipulate and master. As they establish the expectations for play with a partner or in a group, girls practice the skills of planning, negotiation, and cooperation. When conflict arises, girls learn how to advocate for their own ideas, listen to other’s ideas, and respond in socially appropriate ways in order to keep the fun going. The American Association of Pediatrics report declared that “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning), which allows us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

The next time you are considering downloading a learning app on your phone or adding a structured activity to your child’s schedule, stop and think of Shigeru Miyamoto rambling about in the woods and playing in the river. To an adult onlooker, Miyamoto’s activities probably looked pointless, but the joy he found in setting his own course and discovering the world in his own way has sustained him over a lifetime full of creative achievement. It’s wonderful that play, the thing kids seek naturally and like to do best of all, is one of the best things for them.