For the Love of Play

Do you remember all the neighborhood and pick-up games we used to play when we were growing up?  Most of us likely carry very fond memories of playing games like sand-lot ball, kick the can, ghost in the graveyard, or capture the flag.  Many times these games went on until dark and we played with friends of all ages.  Today’s youth live in a play-deprived society.  As youth sports increase in structure and competition has become out of balance with “play,” our youth have fewer opportunities to simply have fun and play.  American society finds itself battling obesity, diabetes, and a host of other issues related to inactive lifestyles and poor diets.  Rates of youth mental disorders and suicide have also seen increases (Gray, 2013).  Even amidst significant societal changes over the past fifty years, one constant that possesses the power and ability to promote and reinforce the fun and value of play has been physical education classes and school sports.  Dr. Stuart Brown (2009) explains, “The power of play is intensely pleasurable.  It energizes us and enlivens us.  It eases our burdens.  It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” Play helps children develop their moral, physical, emotional, social, and intellectual capabilities and as educators, we shape the learning environment and experiences of our students.

In Joe Ehrmann’s book, InSideOut Coaching, he recommends each coach answers the question: what does it feel like to be coached by me?  This is a great question for all teachers to ask, too.  What does it feel like to be taught by me?  Are my classes engaging, fun, and a positive experience for students?  Or is class drudgery?  When your students gather in 20, 30, or 40 years at a class reunion, how you will be remembered when they share memories of your class?  Will students remember your class fondly, or will your classes invoke negative memories?  Unfortunately, the answer is not always that we will be remembered warmly.  It is hard to believe, but the following is a real excerpt from an adult looking back on physical educational experiences as youth.  “The exception to otherwise pleasant childhood play: those f*!#ing gym classes. Drill, verbal abuse, elitism, a sense of futility, and occasionally fear. Yuck” (Strean, 2009, p. 217).  Our physical education classes have the ability to produce great joy and life-long positive habits or conversely, a lifetime of negative emotions.

Think about our own lives. Tony Wagner (2012) reminds us that “Adults do very little in their free time where there isn’t play, that they aren’t passionate about and without purpose.”  Our students are no different.  The fact that play is fun should not mean it is a break from learning.  Play is learning.  In fact, Dr. Brown states play is our brain’s preferred way of learning (2009).  This is where some of the most valuable life lessons are gleaned each and every day (Gray, 2013).  Let’s remember to keep play alive as a valuable part of every class.  Each class, ask yourself what element of fun play you have included.  Engagement will increase, effort will skyrocket, and your classes will become laboratories for learning life lessons.  Students will thank you and remember you for teaching physical education the way you did!


Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin.
Ehrmann, J., Ehrmann, P., & Jordan, G. (2011). InSideOut coaching: How sports can transform lives. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Gray, P. (2013).  The play deficit: Children today are cosseted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never grow up.  aeon. 
Strean, W. B. (2009). Remembering instructors: play, pain and pedagogy. Qualitative research in sport and exercise, 1(3), 210-220.
Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Simon and Schuster.

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