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Kids Don't Know How to Play, Even in Finland

My daughter’s 2nd-grade teacher is a believer in “brain breaks." When she senses the need for movement or change, she sets them on a different course for a few minutes. They dance, meditate, stretch and move their bodies in creative ways to break up the monotony of sitting and learning. My daughter loves these breaks from reality, and she comes home itching to tell me about them.

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I know that she is one of the lucky ones. In many public schools across America, kids sit for hours at a time with very little movement of any kind, never mind haphazard “brain breaks” when the going gets tough — which is a shame because movement and play, even in small amounts, can rejuvenate kids and help them thrive.

We often hear about the benefits of frequent classroom breaks as seen in the Finnish school system. In Finland, kids enjoy shorter school days and are given 15-minute breaks outside following every 45 minutes of instruction. In an article that appeared in The Atlantic, one teacher found that, while this system appears to help kids focus during lessons, the majority of students in Finland weren't choosing to spend their breaks playing or being active. Instead, they preferred to spend the time sitting, tapping on phones or just chatting.

In America, we deprive kids of the opportunity for free play in an effort to work harder and learn more. In Finland, they allow for plenty of free play, and yet the kids sit around waiting to be called back to their classes. What gives?

What we have here is a crisis. Kids lack the ability to play independently.

Not only has recess seen cuts in recent years, but many students go to school without physical education, art, and music as well.

Some schools in Finland are using “recess activators,” older students paired with younger students to help start fun games during their outside breaks. Is this what childhood has come to? Do kids need play mentors to remind them how to get out and play?

It might seem like play is simply a way to fill a few hours, but the truth is that it has numerous benefits. Through play, children learn to cope with frustration, relate to others, build meaningful relationships, understand the world around them, problem solve, practice new skills and learn to take risks. Regular physical play can also fend off obesity, improve mental health (lower risk of symptoms of depression and anxiety), improve cardiovascular health and aid in memory and concentration.

Not only is free play the business of childhood, but play is also crucial to the healthy development of children. It’s time to take back the free play.

We can choose to reduce the stress our children face each day by making time for unstructured play every single day of the week.

Why do today's kids seem to lack the ability to get down to the business of play? Some will point to the rise in technology. Kids are plugged in and checked out more often than in decades past. Others will blame longer school days with less unstructured time. Not only has recess seen cuts in recent years, but many students go to school without physical education, art and music as well. An increased amount of homework means less unstructured playtime for kids in the after-school hours. And then there’s that pesky little problem of over-scheduling. Children are now enrolled in organized sports and other highly structured activities at a younger age than ever before. That, too, takes away from play.

Is there one direct cause for lack of play skills across the board? Of course not. We all come from different backgrounds with different stressors and different needs. That’s why we all need to step up and take back the free play for our children.

We can’t control what happens behind the walls of the school, but we can make time for free play at home. We can help our children re-learn the power of play by putting down our distractions and interacting with them. We can resist the urge to enroll in every sport, camp or art class that looks interesting, and allow them to play tag with friends and paint at home instead. We can make small changes at home that lead to big benefits at school, in the community and beyond.

RELATED: Recess: Don't Let It Go!

We can choose to reduce the stress our children face each day by making time for unstructured play every single day of the week. When we give our children the gift of play, we set them up for a better future. Make time for childhood. Make time for play.

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