Taking the Right to Play to the Illinois General Assembly

Since I attended the first annual True Play Conference in Anji, China, my work has focused on igniting the global true play revolution.  If we are going to save early childhood education from the narrow focus of test-based accountability, push down of academic standards, and an influx of developmentally inappropriate practices we must demand what we know works best for all children…the right to play! As the Director of Early Childhood Organizing for Defending the Early Years, my goal is to support others who are doing this work by sharing their stories. Cassie Creswell, the director and president of Illinois Families for Public Schools, wrote this blog. She has been organizing and advocating for public schools in Chicago and beyond for the last decade. Here she explains why her organization is proposing a Right to Play bill to the Illinois General Assembly.

When my daughter began kindergarten in 2011, her teacher, a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Public Schools, pointed to the playhouse and toys tucked into the far end of her classroom and said sadly, “I don’t really know why we still have those. We only have 30 minutes once a week to play with them now. Not like when I started here.” Meanwhile, my daughter and her classmates had more than a dozen standardized tests that school year, pages of homework packets, and were expected to spend a half-hour each evening on online math and reading computer drills.

Now, almost a decade later, the opportunities for play in public schools in Illinois are still minimal. Chicago Public Schools began requiring 20 minutes of recess per day in 2012, but most of the other largest school districts in Illinois have no such policy. Even in schools that do have recess, parents are upset that children can lose what little time provided for misbehavior.

Study after study demonstrates the benefits of play for improving physical and mental health and academic achievement. It is crucial to overall development in both early childhood (birth to 8) and middle childhood (8-12). Children need play to develop social skills, rejuvenate mentally, and to expend physical energy. They need it because it is simply how the brains of the youngest members of our human species function—they play.  The International Rights of the Child treaty recognizes play as a human right for all children.

And yet, free play is a rarity in public schools, and what opportunity exists is inequitably distributed: poor and low-income children and children of color are less likely to have time for play at school and more likely to have playtime withheld as a punishment.

Why is this? The system of high-stakes standardized test-based accountability rolled out of over the last quarter-century in Chicago and across the country has made increasing test scores the paramount goal of our public-school system. This narrow focus on achievement has meant ever more academic time-on-task and a laser focus on test prep not just in grades with federally mandated testing in math and reading, 3rd-8th, but also in kindergarten through second, or even earlier.

More time on math, reading and test prep have meant far less time for what makes for a well-rounded, engaging educational experience, e.g., arts, world languages, physical education, and even science and social studies, and, to the detriment of an entire generation of children, recess and other unstructured times for play. In just the first five years under the No Child Left Behind Act, recess time decreased by 50 minutes per week.

The irony of restricting time for free play is that breaks from classroom instruction result in children who are better able to learn when they are in the classroom because they can focus. Statewide, students in third grade are spending 90 minutes on math and 150 minutes on reading each day, according to the IL State Board of Education. Replacing 15 minutes of each academic hour with a break for free play would give children an hour of play and would make the remaining 180 minutes far more productive.

This schedule is the norm in countries around the world, from Finland to Japan, and in many private schools in the US. And in Texas and Oklahoma, elementary schools have implemented four 15-minute breaks per day for thousands of children since 2013-2014; parents, teachers, and students have been thrilled with the result: happier, healthier students who are more engaged in class.

Parents in Illinois know how valuable time for free play is and want it for their children. That’s why our organization is working to pass a bill to require Illinois public schools to provide all children K-8th grades with 60 minutes per day of free play.

Illinois elementary schools could put an hour of play into practice without passing a state law, but the truth is, in the era of high-stakes test-based school ratings, no school or district is willing to pull out of the test-prep arms race to try it. According to the Education Commission on the States research has shown: “schools with state laws requiring recess were significantly likely to have at least 20 minutes of recess daily. District policies were not correlated to recess time. Only a requirement from above will force schools to rearrange their schedules and have children set aside their iPads and worksheets to play.

Play is a fundamental component of high-quality education, and we must protect it from the encroachment of test-based accountability policies. With ever more time spent in schools on screens rather than engaging with teachers, peers, and the physical world, it will take a state law to ensure that children have the right to play every day in Illinois public schools.

Cassie Creswell, director and president of Illinois Families for Public Schools

And to get such a law passed, it will take play advocates all over the state working together. If you’d like to join our effort, you can find more info here.

We at Defending the Early Years wish to thank Cassie and everyone at Illinois Families for Public Schools for demanding all children have a right to play.

What are you doing to spread the true play revolution? Send your story to denisha@dey.org

Early bird registration for DEY’s second Summer Institute is underway! For more details visit https://dey.org/early-childhood-summer-organizing-institute/