by Dr. Debora Wisneski 

For parents of children entering elementary school, rigors and new expectations of school may seem daunting. In the U.S., there has been concern regarding school-age children’s health and well-being related to obesity and mental illness particularly pertaining to stress, anxiety, and depression, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents have been cautioned against overscheduling children’s free time and too much homework as schools across the country have diminished recess as a form of free play during the school day. Child psychologists have recognized that the lack of play in the elementary years is contributing to children’s lack of well-being.

Research demonstrates that play is beneficial for kids’ development and learning throughout their school years. However, the play of older children is different than that of younger kids. Pretend play with baby dolls gradually turns into sophisticated storytelling. Candyland is replaced with a more difficult challenge, like Chess. A quick game of catch transforms into an organized sport. As children develop, their play becomes more intricate and challenging; and as play becomes more complex, children develop cognitively, physically, and emotionally. Hence, both organized and free play in and out of school is critical for all children.

Outdoor play during traditional recess times helps children maintain positive mental states, stay physically fit, and do better academically. With more recesses, children do better in academics, engage in more physical activity, and have better emotional states. Big body play is a great way to settle a restless class and children pay better attention when they have movement breaks.

There are other free play activities beyond the physical games of recess. For example, board games help children learn important subjects such as math, literacy, and problem solving. Also, maker-spaces and adventure playgrounds where children can build and make things help develop problem-solving skills and creativity.

Additionally, The Genius of Play, a national movement to raise awareness about play’s critical role in child development and encourage more play in children’s lives, provides free inspiration and play ideas on its website,

Top Tips to Help Balance School Work and Play

  1. Ask school officials how much time is afforded to students for free play—outdoors and indoors. What are the recess policies? How is play part of the school day?
  2. Engage teachers in conversations about teaching through play and limiting the amount of homework.
  3. Advocate for longer and/or more recess. Many teachers and principals feel empowered to make positive change when they know they have families’ support.
  4. Plan unstructured free play time in your child’s schedule. You can visit public parks, children’s museums, and adventure playgrounds.
  5. Participate and join your children in play. Volunteer to go to your child’s classroom and play games. Organize a family board game night in your neighborhood.

Debora B. Wisneski, PhD, is associate professor and John T. Langan professor in early childhood education in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She previously served as the president of the Association for Childhood Education International and was a steering committee member of the U.S. Play Coalition. She serves on the local board of directors for Educare of Omaha, The Rose Theater, and Spielbound. She has taught for more than 30 years at the preschool, Kindergarten, and higher education levels. She is a reviewer for professional journals, including Teaching and Teacher Education and the American Journal for Play, and serves on the editorial board for the Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education. Wisneski earned her BSEd. and MEd. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in early childhood education at the University of Missouri-Columbia and earned her doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in early childhood education. She has written multiple publications in the area of play and early childhood education scholarship.