Around the Archdiocese

Power of play: Cedar Falls Catholic school students benefit from free play time

Observe Global School Play Day

By Laura Dobson
Special to The Witness

CEDAR FALLS – On Wednesday, Feb. 7, St. Patrick Catholic School kindergarten students worked on language development, used their imaginations, practiced self-control, developed their team­work skills, and sharpened their problem solving abilities.

The students didn’t learn these lessons through structured classroom activities, however. The learning took place as they celebrated international Global School Play Day. With extra time for unstructured free play, the students led their own learning by moving around the classrooms and choosing what and with whom they wanted to play.

Global School Play Day is an effort to raise awareness of the value of free play. The event was inspired by a TEDx lecture by Peter Gray, a psychology professor and researcher at Boston College whose studies of play have documented the importance and the unfortunate decline of children’s play since the 1950s.

Dr. Sarah Montgomery, associate professor of elementary education at UNI, brought this third annual event to the attention of St. Patrick kindergarten teachers Beth Stone and Kim Vandendriessche. Montgomery is a big proponent of free play time at school and knew that St. Patrick kindergarteners have the benefit of unstructured play every day.

“It is important that we honor the power of play in our classrooms, homes and communities,” said Montgomery. “Through play children (and adults) can solve problems, figure out how to better communicate, and try out new ideas or approaches to a task.”

Montgomery explained that free play is not just something for after school or on the weekends.

“Children need the opportunity to have time for unstructured play, especially during the school day,” she said. “Giving students time to play can support their development of strong executive functioning skills and ability to self regulate. There has also been recent research showing that giving students more time for unstructured play and discovery in the early childhood grades (K-3) actually leads to increased student scores on literacy assessments in later grades.”

Integrating time for play into a child’s schedule can have lifelong benefits, according to the professor.

“By prioritizing play we are helping build a strong foundation for our children’s long-term success both academically and socially,” said Montgomery.

Stone and Vandendriessche were eager to participate in the Global School Play Day.

“I think it is important to bring awareness to parents and the community on the importance of play,” said Stone.

“Instead of playing,” Stone noted, “students are being tested more and more. When I learned that kindergarten classrooms were taking center time away, I couldn’t believe it and it hurt my heart. When my own son began kindergarten this year, I realized even more how important play is.”

Kindergarten students at St. Patrick have center time every day during language arts. The teachers do large and small group lessons during that time. When not involved in group lessons, the students enjoy free choice time. Activities available include STEM toys that encourage creativity and cooperation with other students. Other centers like PlayDoh and the writing center help with fine motor skills. Students may freely choose to make a book and write a sentence. They may paint pictures or cut and color.

The students are excited to share their creations with others and are intrinsically motivated. They are also putting into practice the “7 Habits of Happy Kids” they are learning through the school’s participation in “The Leader in Me Program.” Thinking win-win and synergizing are among the habits they readily employ during unstructured play time.

Vandendriessche summed it all up. “Free play is a way of ensuring the young acquire skills they need for adulthood,” she said. “It is one of God’s gifts to children while on Earth!”


Dobson is marketing coordinator for St. Patrick School in Cedar Falls.

Students play a game of Guess Who. St. Patrick kindergartners have play time every day, allowing them the opportunity to develop teamwork and other soft skills needed for success. (Contributed photo)