Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Importance of Deliberate Play Opportunities for School-age Kids and Teens

In the spirit of Summer Reading, this post will be filled with completely unrelated galaxy cats.

I’ve talked about the power of play in relation to early literacy and the Babies Need Words Every Day campaign. Today, I want to talk about the importance of the deliberate use of play with school-age children and adolescents.

When we talk about play and creativity in the library, we often talk about young children. And why not? Play is one of Every Child Ready to Read’s five practices. Once children hit kindergarten, though, we talk about makerspaces. We talk about STEM. Even though these are steeped in self-discovery in the library, the overt goal is to educate. Or, at least, add to our evidence that the library helps children “learn” by the academic definition. And for good reason:  It’s clear that libraries have resonated with stake holders about their role in early literacy education. The next obvious step is to show that we make an academic difference with school-age children. Some libraries do pre- and post-tests to prove Summer Reading helps prevent the Summer Slide. I’ve created outreach with measurable alignment to State Standards.

But it’s important not to lose the very real fact that play has non-academic benefits. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you may notice that even saying this signals a huge shift in my thinking over the past year or so. Down to the deepest parts of my heart and soul, I am an educator who was born out of the public school system and for all its faults I will defend what is considered a public school classroom until at least the end of this sentence, and probably after that. I will give you that it’s not for every single individual; but public education has never been about The Single Individual, anyway.

That’s why I think it may feel so critical to me that I separate the library from its possible academic benefits here.  Play has so many additional benefits, especially for school-age children and adolescents who come from backgrounds in trauma: those who live with food insecurity or transiency, those who live with toxic stress, those who live in volatile or neglectful environments. Those who may not have a space to play. Basically, a lot of the kids and teens who come into our libraries whether we’re aware of it or not.

If we wanted more deliberately center our school-age and teen programming around play in a non-academic way, what could we say to justify it?

1. Children and teens are in dire need of recreation: As curricula become more rigorous, timelines get tight. Time for play and creativity is the first to go. Additionally, housing circumstances may create barriers to access to a safe play space. It’s imperative that children and teens have opportunities to play in the library since they may not be getting this necessary time anywhere else.

2. Play develops the brain in very specific non-academic ways: creativity, teamwork, communication, self-regulation, self-reliance, empathy, problem solving, self-confidence, and self-expression are all developed through play.  The library can provide a safe and predictable space to learn these skills.

3. Play can build resilience: Children and teens need a healthy relationship with at least one adult in their lives to build resilience. There’s no reason this relationship can’t be with a library staff member through regularly scheduled guided play opportunities at the library.

For some inspiration:
I want to share with you a video about some of the greatest self-discovery/empowerment-through-play-based programs around: Superhero Training Academy now based in Detroit, MI. Take a look and see if you can spot the things I mentioned above:

If you’re feeling generous, please donate to their month-long crowd-sourced funding initiative here. Just $11 will equip a child with a superhero identity and start them on their journey!
Drive ends July 31, 2016.

Full disclosure: Michael Mallon/Laughing Moon is a friend from college, and I have been following the awesomeness which is the Superhero Training Academy since its infancy. I was not asked to solicit donations on my blog, but I definitely wanted to take advantage of this tie-in opportunity. Thank you for your consideration!


  1. Thanks for a great post! We run so many "just fun" programs for school-age kids at my library, since all the kids in our area seem to spend all their time in school or else in language, religion, music and other skill-based lessons. We want to give them some time just to be kids!

  2. THANK YOU! I have been grumbling about this for awhile now, that the focus on the little children and play is such a big deal, but when will people realize that school aged kids need that fun in their lives too? We had a game of Quidditch in our library last night and you could see the excitement on their faces and in under and hour they were working as a team - so much more there than just "goofing off".