Why independent play is crucial for giving students room to explore and experiment

Giving kids responsibilities and the freedom to carry them out is crucial to children’s development
By: | December 7, 2021
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Superintendent Stuart D. Moore, Hooker Public Schools

Superintendent Stuart D. Moore, Hooker Public Schools

While Moscow Unified School District 209 is rural and the town’s population is just around 300, it was easy to notice when fewer children were playing outdoors throughout the community, at parks, and on the playground after school hours.

While my evidence is only anecdotal, from years of frequent walks around town taken in the late afternoon or early evening, I knew a downturn in kids engaging in independent play had taken place.

I first came across the Let Grow Project when I read an article about it in a professional journal. I was intrigued and felt it was the perfect time to try it in my school. I communicated with staff regarding the project, and it was an easy sell, since teachers understood (and regularly dealt with) learned helplessness among their students.

The goal of the project was simple, yet powerful: Create a sense of independence and responsibility in the students and let them grow in confidence. So, we quickly implemented the program and utilized the included sample notes and grade-specific activities.

These independent activities ranged from having students prepare their own toast, to directing them to ride their bicycles to the store to buy a few groceries for their family. Each time students completed an activity, a simple form was filled out by the parent and student and brought back to school.

Then, the activity and the student’s name were written on a colorful paper leaf that was already cut out and distributed to each classroom teacher. The leaf was placed on a “tree” on a wall in the cafeteria for all to see. The growing tree generated excitement and completing activities became contagious.

Soon, a huge part of the cafeteria wall was covered with trees and leaves. Many more branches were added as the tree grew. Most importantly, our students were growing and learning how capable they were to complete tasks on their own.

Across the board—parents, students, and teachers—feedback about the project was positive. Parents and staff saw how successful the students could be when they were trusted with common sense, independence and freedom.

Our students were gaining confidence in their ability to accomplish tasks without help from adults. This empowerment carried over to academic work as well–students realized they often did not need constant assistance when completing assignments in class or homework.

An added benefit occurred during the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut schools down for the last quarter of the academic term. Many students had to take additional responsibility and ownership over their learning while instruction was delivered remotely. I believe part of our students’ success during this time stemmed from gaining independence through participation in the Let Grow Project.

The program was a huge benefit to our students and perhaps more importantly—to their parents. Giving kids responsibilities and the freedom to carry them out is crucial to children’s development.

In today’s culture of helicopter and lawnmower parenting, projects like Let Grow help parents re-evaluate what their kids are capable of doing independently. Kids need room to explore, try new adventures and succeed or even fail, and then try again. The amount students learn and gain from unstructured play probably cannot be quantified, but as educators we know the value of giving kids room to grow.

Stuart D. Moore, a 34-year educator, is the superintendent of Hooker Public Schools in Oklahoma.