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The Play's The Thing

Emily Lent Hemingway

Last week, Bement students met with their buddies for the first time. Every grade level is partnered with another grade a few years younger or older, and throughout the year, they meet to read, learn, and play together. On Friday, every corner of our campus was abuzz with the excitement of meeting these buddies. Delighted lower schoolers ran back to their classrooms chanting the names of their older buddies while confident upper schoolers reminisced about how long ago it was that they were once so small with a buddy who seemed so big.

In a school like Bement that cultivates student growth over a ten-year span, the differences between our youngest students and our oldest are often obvious, and never more so than when those students are working side by side. Not so apparent are the many ways our students, from five year olds to fifteen year olds, are similar to each other. No matter their age, height, or grade level, all of our students share an important connection: a love of recess.

Now, it’s no secret that students enjoy recess, but Bement students, and the school itself, are uniquely invested in it. In the lower school, we begin our days with a few minutes to play, connect with friends, and settle into the day. Every Bement student has a lengthy mid-morning break, and our youngest students have a break in the early afternoon, as well. All of this time is in addition to daily athletics and routine trips to our outdoor education center at Pine Hill. Our founder, Grace Bement, believed deeply in the connection between physical activity, the natural world, and brain development, and research over the decades since she started our little school has proven those instincts to be revolutionary.

While many schools today are reducing time spent outside playing in order to increase time spent inside at a desk, Bement has never been mainstream. According to Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, authors of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, free play is a catalyst for developing skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. These skills are vital for success later in life, and they are best learned on the playground. As for those minutes of sacrificed instructional time, it’s all for a good cause; a 2010 study by the CDC found that students with longer recesses ultimately earned higher grades, anyway.

It’s no coincidence that our faculty book club chose Daniel Pink’s new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing to read this fall. Pink emphasizes the importance of taking breaks during long periods of work or school. “Recess isn’t a break from learning,” he clarifies, “It is learning.” Pink includes tips on scheduling and structuring recess for schools and administrators who are changing their students’ schedules to reflect current research and best practices. The ideal recess, according to Pink, is a period of unstructured play, preferably at least twice a day, in which children can interact freely and openly in a natural environment.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Bement has been doing it since 1925.

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