How Play Can Increase Resilience

6 minute read
Keyes is a sociologist and professor emeritus at Emory University whose research on mental health—including his pioneering work on the science of human flourishing—has had wide-reaching policy implications. Over the course of his career, he’s advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Happiness Forum, as well as governmental agencies in Canada, Northern Ireland, and Australia

Play is a microcosm of childhood, a protective shell like a butterfly’s chrysalis that safeguards children from the slings and arrows of life, one that allows them to grow. What happens, however, when, through no fault of your own, you are born into conditions—poverty, racism, and other adversities—that groom children for bad outcomes? Can play, if nurtured and supported in such adverse conditions, create resilience? Can increased opportunities for play encourage better-than-expected life outcomes, and possibly even provide a buffer against the odds of the cycle of poverty being perpetuated?

I think back to my own childhood; when the violence and abuse started, I think I stopped playing entirely until I managed to escape that home. For me, as for so many other children, school was no place for play, either. Once I lost the sense of safety to play at home, I had no other outlets for it.

The classrooms I was educated in throughout K–12 schooling would be familiar to most of you: rows of desks in which students sat facing the front of the classroom; very little physical movement; a lot of time spent listening to the teacher; and then too much quiet time doing the required workbook or instructional activity alone at one’s desk.

Read More: The Secret Power of Play

The direct instruction setting was a nightmare for me but even more so for my teachers, who regularly pleaded with me to stop drumming on my desk or bouncing my legs up and down, which would rattle my desk and drive the teacher crazy. I often ended up in detention, where I wrote hundreds of sentences on the board or on sheets of paper, scrawling the same sentence over and over in my messy handwriting: “I will not…”

Then one year, when I was about eight years old, we moved to a new town. There I was placed in what was called an “open classroom.” I was free to choose what I worked on, when, and with whom. I mingled and worked with and alongside kids who were a grade below and one above me and we could walk around to different work areas and choose what we worked on. What was magical was also that we often goofed around and had fun, even played a little, as we worked and in that way, we weren’t overly supervised or reprimanded for not staying 100% task focused. And for the first time ever, I blossomed. I was not in detention, my grades were nearly perfect, and I jumped ahead two years in my reading and other skills. Then, a year later, we moved again; my father was a dry-wall finisher, and we had to move to Florida, where there was more construction happening. Once again, I was back in the direct instruction classroom and back to being the problem child.

That one blessed year in the so-called open classroom, one that was total liberation to me as a child, turned out to be a lot like an instruction model that was tested in a well-known study called the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which was conducted in the mid-1960s. The study was a preschool instructional intervention program that focused on “at-risk” children, all of them Black youths and all living in poverty. The children were randomly assigned to either a “direct instruction” group or one of two “self-initiated” instruction conditions.

The direct instruction program focused on teaching academic skills. Teachers led children in short, planned lessons in language, math, and reading, using prepared materials such as workbooks. In the two self-initiated models, the classroom in one model was organized into distinct interest topical areas—for example, reading, writing, math. The central experience revolved around encouraging the child’s initiative, creating and sustaining social relationships, promoting self-expression through creativity, music, movement, language and literacy, and basic mathematical operations such as classifying and counting objects.

The second self-initiated approach was the traditional nursery school curriculum, in which the main objective was for children to learn social skills rather than academic skills. There, teachers sometimes organized class activities, discussions, and field trips. Often, the children had the freedom to choose their activities, move from one activity to another, and interact with their peers or adults. Unlike the other two models of learning, the nursery school approach encouraged play; it was a central and welcomed activity, and the children were the initiators of various forms of play.

The results? The kids who learned—or at least tried to learn—in the direct instruction classroom fell victim to the same very bad outcomes of so many kids growing up poor in the United States. The kids who learned in the self-initiated classrooms did not become yet an- other statistic of growing up in poverty in America. Just the opposite, in fact.

In most instances, it didn’t matter which self-initiated classroom the kids were placed in; it just mattered that they were in one of those two settings and not in the direct instruction classroom. And the difference was devastating. Some of the unfortunate outcomes that characterized the kids who had been instructed in the direct instruction classroom were higher school dropout rates, more drug-dealing arrests, an arrest sheet with five or more arrests, bearing children out of wedlock, living on public assistance, not owning a home, and unemployment. Even if those kids were able to stay employed in the future, they were sometimes not able to make $2,000 or more per year (equivalent to about $17,500 today, adjusted for inflation).

Those unfortunate outcomes were not written in stone. The kids in the other classrooms who were lucky enough to be instructed with a play-forward mentality, by and large, were able to become successful adults. By age 27, they were more likely to own a home and to be earning a good living; they were not, on the whole, high school dropouts, single and raising children on public assistance, convicts or ex-convicts.

Prevention worked. Giving children some self-direction and allowing them to play in an enriched environment made a world of difference in interrupting the cycle of poverty.

Joe Frost, one of the leading play researchers, has unearthed similar findings: Children who are deprived of play when they are young are shown to demonstrate reduced resilience in adverse situations, lower levels of self-control, and difficulty relating to others both socially and emotionally. Play is no laughing matter, especially when it has been shown to help build a brighter future for our kids.

Excerpted from Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down by Corey Keyes. Copyright © 2024. Published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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