Free Play

Tag! You’re It!

For American pronghorn, play begins early in life. A young pronghorn will reach its peak play at about 4 weeks of age. Playtime includes a heavy dose of running. For pronghorns, running actually means sprinting. Running and playing as a fawn, however, come with risks. Play represents around 20% of total energy expenditure in fawns if you exclude growth and resting metabolic rate (Byers 1997). This type of energy expenditure could leave the fawns vulnerable to predation. So, why do they often sprint, leap, and twist during playtime if it could leave them exposed? The answer seems rather obvious. Fawns sprint because it is great practice for their adult lives. As adults, pronghorns are the fastest land mammals in North America, topping speeds of 55 mph or more. They have the ability to easily out run their predators. They are not sedentary animals. They cannot afford to not move. Moving is a good thing. Learning to run during playtime is probably just a form of “motor training” (Bekoff and Byers 1981). Pronghorn are made to run.

We, as humans, don’t have to worry about being chased by large predators, but some biologists have made the case that we, too, are made to run. Bernd Heinrich argues this very point in his book, Why We Run. Heinrich takes a natural history approach by comparing running and moving in multiple species across the biological spectrum. His central point is that we were once forced to be continually active to find food and survive, and because of this we never had the chance to be idle for prolonged periods of time. Now, we are often idle for long periods of time. We don’t explore the wilderness. We don’t go for walks. We don’t run. We are content just to sit inside and watch the television or play video games or stare at a Facebook feed.

Our bodies are designed in such a way that we store excess calories as fat in preparation for those times when we may have little food to eat. Since most Americans don’t really experience times of little food, this excess fat has consequences. Periods of idleness can result in obesity. Heinrich also makes the case that a prolonged sedentary lifestyle has negative consequences on our bones. If bones don’t receive the normal daily stress that comes from moving and running, they will become weak (osteoporosis). Think about astronauts who live in the zero-gravity environment of space for a period of time. Their bones become weak rapidly. Like pronghorn, we weren’t made to be sedentary. We were made to run.

Can you name the #1 outdoor game for kids between the ages of 3-10? I don’t have any confirmation, but I believe it is “tag”. Why do children (and lots of adults) love this game? We love this game because it’s easy, there is no equipment to purchase, you can play with as little as 2 people, it can be played just about any where and it’s fun. There are also definite benefits. It’s a great way to meet new friends, it improves critical thinking skills (strategy involved), it improves speed and agility, and it’s great exercise.

Yet, children are told not to run in the house (they might knock something over), not to run in the school hallway (it’s disorderly), not to run on the sidewalk (they might skin their knees). In some cases, it seems, kids aren’t even allowed to run outside during recess for fear of running into another kid or stepping in a hole. Some are even threatened with punishment if they are caught running.

We were made to run, but we often find ourselves in situations where we can’t.


Beckon, M. And J. A. Byers. 1981. A critical reanalysis of the ontogeny and phylogeny of mammalian social and locomotor play: An ethological hornet’s nest. In Behavioral development: The Bielefeld interdisciplinary project, ed. K. Immelmann, G. Barlow, M. Main, and L. Petrinovich, 296-337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Byers, J. A. 1997. American Pronghorn: Social Adaptations and the Ghosts of Predators Past. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

A Plea to Reclaim Recess


Imagine the sound of 25 students counting as they complete laps around the school playground. The students are spending the majority of their already skimpy recess time being punished for talking in the classroom. Two hours before, they had to sit through their lunch without talking because the whole class didn’t finish work on time. After they complete the laps, they can spend the remaining 4 minutes playing. That’s enough time, right?

Recess has been defined as “a break period, typically outdoors, for children” (Pellegrini and Smith 1993). When compared to the rest of the school day, recess should be a time when kids have freedom to choose what to do without overbearing instruction. It should constitute a break from the day’s regular routine. Scientists, social behaviorists, and psychologists refer to this as “unstructured play”. With parents wanting (or needing) their children involved in everything from dance lessons to year-round sports, this unstructured play time is already limited at home. Now it seems as if school recess is taking a hit.

There are several reasons used as an excuse to cut, or limit, school recess time in general. Liability could be an issue if a student gets hurt. However, it seems like schools needing more “instructional” time is most commonly used. Unstructured recess time is vanishing. In 2009, a report by the Alliance for Childhood Fund stated that kindergartens in NYC and Los Angeles allowed children less than 30 minutes per day of “choice” time, and this included lunch. When students are also being punished with a “silent” lunch, how much time does this really leave for non-instructional time?

The North Carolina State Board of Education Policy HSP-S-000, section 3-b states, “a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity shall be provided by schools for all K-8 students daily.” However, it follows up by stating that this “30 minutes” can be “achieved through a regular physical education class and/or through activities such as recess, dance, classroom energizers, or other curriculum-based physical activity programs.” Obviously, our state’s educational leaders don’t understand the meaning of free play, especially the importance of it being unstructured and curriculum-free. The policy also states in section 3-a that “structured/unstructured recess and other physical activity shall not be taken away as a form of punishment.” Schools can easily weasel around this by not actually taking the time away, but instead making students do things like walk laps around a playground. As a whole, the state policy is disappointing because of the many advantages to free, unstructured play.

The fact that free play is critical in the development of children is well documented. It helps children become socially adept as they play games and solve problems with their friends, cope with stress, and build important cognitive skills like problem-solving. Pellegrini and Davis found that elementary school children become more inattentive when free play is cut short (1993). Through a meta-analysis of over 200 studies, Etnier et al. showed that physical activity even supports learning. Unstructured play also plays a role in developing naturalistic intelligence, or “nature smarts”. For us in the business of conservation and engaging/recruiting science students, this is huge.

The creative aspect is key here because children need to be allowed to use their imaginations with their playmates instead of following a predetermined set of rules at recess (like walking laps). Of course, many parents believe they are doing what is best for their children when they sign them up for travel baseball (with 5 days of practice per week and games all weekend). Likewise, many teachers feel they are justified when they swap play for “valuable” instructional punishment. In his highly acclaimed book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes habit #3 as “Put First Things First”. Covey argues that throughout the day we must prioritize based on what is most important, not what is most urgent. Since elementary students now have tremendous academic demands placed on them, we would all do well to take Covey’s advice to prioritize and let kids be kids.