Girl choosing healthy lifestyle, practicing yoga near sport equipment, vegetables stock illustration iStock-Healthy Lifestyle

More Play: Doctor’s Orders

March 8, 2023

Earlier this school year, leaders in our organization had the opportunity to learn from renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Shimi Kang on the subject of mental health and wellbeing. In short, she suggested that outside of people who are clinically ill, the response to illbeing is quite simple (though not easy). She suggested that adults and children alike should follow the simple formula of P.O.D.: Play, Others and Downtime. In other words, she reinforced that the “secret” to wellbeing is playing more, investing in helping others, and turning off more to care for oneself. She reminded us that while this seems quite simple, it is not easy, and requires a measure of discipline and commitment.  She reinforced the idea by writing a prescription for us, confirming that these were doctor’s orders.

Fast forward a few months and the concern about student and adult mental health and wellbeing continues to dominate our discourse in education, and for good reason. The evidence we have about student wellness, for instance, continues to send alarm bells across our systems.

  • 42% of grade 11 students rate their mental health as poor (YDI)
  • 40% of grade 4 and 7 students rate their mental health as poor (Student Learning Survey)
  • 37% of grade 11 students screened positively for depression (YDI)
  • 40% of grade 11 students felt they had a caring school environment (YDI)
  • 21% of grade 5 students were thriving at school (MDI)
  • 34% of grade 5 students were thriving at school (MDI)

The good news is that we are making great strides in de-stigmatizing talking mental health and wellness. The challenge remains that these data are cause for some concern, which is why districts are now more heavily invested in understand and responding to student illbeing. I return now to one of Dr. Kang’s reminders on the importance of play and the idea that what is simple may not be easy. The research is abundantly clear that play, particularly among children, is highly correlated with academic competency, resiliency, and emotional health. Play is not beneficial just for children; it is essential for adults…and all mammals in fact. Yet, we sometimes struggle to make this a tangle and ongoing part of the school experience. Why do you think that is?

While we appreciate and take advantage of the many technology innovations that support learning in our schools, we have also become concerned about the impact of screen time on the next generations of children. It is fair to say that for many school systems the pandemic caused an increase in the amount of time spend in front of screens. It is only natural that we should be more intentional about reintegrating play into the daily routines of our classroom learning experiences.  It may seem counterintuitive, but it is crucial for our children’s emotional, social, and academic health and progress.  

We sometimes mistakenly think that play is beneficial just for children at the elementary level, but in fact it is good for adolescents and adults alike, for all of us. Experts suggest that unstructured play should be for at least an hour per day, so let’s get past the idea that play at recess and lunch will sufficiently address the need. Play is one of the main ways that children consolidate and build permanence in their learning. We should endeavour to learn more about how to position play into our own lives and the lives of our students. It is time well spent and is a simple and key strategy to addressing the scourge of anxieties reported by students across our school systems.

Some of you may know that February 7 is annually designated as the Global Day of Play. I think we should aim to dedicate a part of every day in our schools to some form of play. Doctor’s orders.