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GAMBIER — On an ordinary day in Amy Kramp’s first-grade classroom, addition and reading are top priorities.

But Wednesday morning, students were hard at work making blanket forts and marble mazes. Teachers throughout Wiggin Street Elementary School allowed their students full or partial days of unstructured free play as part of Global School Play Day 2019.

Students were allowed to bring toys from home or play with classroom toys. They could also move from room to room and play with kids in other grades — provided they asked their teacher first.

“We don’t direct anything, we just keep them safe,” said Kramp. It wasn’t total pandemonium; kids still had to respect school and classroom rules about safety and respect. They also had to leave all technological devices at home.

“I think it gives the kids a chance to practice their social skills and their problem solving skills,” said Kramp. “There’s a lot of things that they learn from play that they can’t learn from anything else.”

Psychology professor Andrea White wholeheartedly agrees.

“Play is fundamental and not just to learning, but to growth and development,” said White, who teaches at Kenyon College. She stated that play free from adult interference is how children hone crucial social behaviors like negotiating and getting along with others.

It’s also how they learn to focus, solve problems and analyze the world around them.

“A lot of the benefits of play aren’t visible because they’re mental processes: Figuring out how things work, how things are connected, how an object can be used for multiple purposes,” said Hewlet McFarlane, the chair of Kenyon’s neuroscience department. “It develops mental flexibility.”

McFarlane likened what he called “object play” to scientific work.

“That’s what scientists do … playing around, trying things out, trying things one way and then another way,” he continued. “That’s what kids do when they play. They’re little scientists.”

Student aide Mandy King got to see that creativity in action.

“You just give them a set of blocks and they come up with all sorts of games,” she said.

Students still attended their Wednesday ‘specials:’ gym, art, technology and music, but physical education instructor Brock Evans wasn’t about to ruin the fun.

When Kramp’s students walked into the gymnasium, they saw all kinds of gear neatly laid out for them: bowling pins, foam mats, dodge balls, balloons, scooters and even rubber chickens.

Evans admitted that the lack of structure was a bit overwhelming, but noted that the kids still respected his rules about safety and cleaning up equipment they were done using.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “Kids don’t get to just use their imagination very often.”

Wiggin Street principal Matt Dill said that Global School Play Day was optional, but most of the classes were participating for at least a portion of the day.

“I’m supportive of the tradition if play benefits the students,” said Dill. “At elementary schools especially, I think it’s important to allow kids to be kids. We want them to learn, but we want them to enjoy learning.”

According to kindergarten teacher Lori Zolman, teachers at Wiggin Street have been observing Global School Play Day since a group of educators founded the movement five years ago.

The movement was started by a group of educators and inspired by Dr. Peter Gray’s 2014 TEDx talk entitled “The Decline of Play,” which discussed how play is a key component of a child’s social and emotional development. Gray also suggested a correlation between the over-scheduling and organization of children’s lives and the increasing rates of childhood anxiety and depression.

Brittany Sivewright, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School, also took part in the day of play. Her students were given a variety of board games to choose from.

“Students spend much of their day consuming information without the opportunity of collaborating, communicating or solving problems with their peers,” she said. “I told them that I would not be available to help until after they read the instructions and worked with their group to solve the problem first.”

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Katie Ellington: 740-397-5333 or katie@mountvernonnews.com and on Twitter, @kt_ellington