I was recently delighted to witness a demonstration of the power that play has in children’s development.

Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? For decades we have known how important it is for children to play. According to an article published in the journal Pediatrics,”Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

I remember many role-playing games from my childhood, some of them facilitated by toys, some not. I ran a shop with pretend groceries, taught school, organized a library and directed plays. My family played board games. I especially remember one called “Masterpiece,” which actually helped me become familiar with many of the world’s greatest artists.

At school, we had recess and played hopscotch and dodge ball. We swung, twirled ourselves on the merry-go-round, went up and down on the seesaws, swung ourselves across the “monkey bars.” All of the equipment was metal, and there wasn’t a wood chip in sight. Once, running an impromptu race, I stuck my foot under a barbed-wire fence and pierced my ankle. I had to be rushed to the doctor for stitches.

After school, kids in the neighborhood gathered. This being the baby-boom generation, there were plenty of us. We rode our Schwinn bicycles with their high-rise handlebars and banana seats and played tag and “pig pile.” No one supervised us or organized us.

Today’s children are usually overscheduled (if they aren’t completely neglected and left to watch TV for hours). They have lessons, play dates and teams. Some school districts have done away with recess or tried to “organize” it. Mustn’t miss a teachable moment!

From Pediatrics: “Currently, many schoolchildren are given less free time and fewer physical outlets at school; many school districts responded to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 by reducing time committed to recess, the creative arts, and even physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics.”

Though I firmly believe in the power of play, it was truly illuminating to participate in a recent Choice Day program at Farrington Elementary School in Augusta. I am the librarian for the district.

This special day (really just most of a morning) gives students a chance to pick from myriad activities offered by the staff. The children selected two activities, each lasting about 45 minutes. Among the offerings were yoga, “spa” treatments and musical chairs. The library was board game central. A request to the staff netted us dozens of games, from checkers to Angry Birds.

At first, I was apprehensive about the program. Would students expect me and my library colleagues to teach them how to play the games? My father liked to tell me how his older brother, Victor, would solemnly and silently read instructions for a new game as the other three children in the family sat quietly around him. Then he’d say, “This is what we do.”

I am not Uncle Victor.

For some reason, I had, at one point, bought an Angry Birds game. This included the walls, pigs, birds and a plastic catapult. As I set it up at school, I wondered if it was a good idea. But I catapulted a bird, and it didn’t go very far. We would not have hostile avian missiles hurtling all over the library.

The children arrived and excitedly picked their games. Other staff members came too. The students set up their games. The older ones helped the younger ones. Teachers played with students. There were no behavioral problems and the students cleaned up their games and put them away when asked. The students were absorbed, collaborative and creative.

One boy, an Iraqi immigrant, was particularly entranced by the Angry Birds game and was quite good at it. A few days after Choice Day, I saw him in the supermarket with his older sister, who graduated from high school a couple of years ago. She had been a student helper in the Cony High School library. I greeted them and told her how her brother had enjoyed his “game time,” and the skill he had shown with Angry Birds.

She was pleased to hear this. “He hasn’t always enjoyed school, you know.”

I did know. But I also know that one positive experience, one chance to show off your skills, one word of recognition from an adult, can change a child’s life forever. Let’s give our kids more time to play, to learn, to succeed.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]

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