Curiosity is a marvelous thing that thrives in the hearts and minds of children of all ages. Combine that with the wiggles of childhood and a seemingly endless source of energy most parents wish they could bottle up and inject directly into themselves on an almost daily basis, and you have a recipe for one of two scenarios: learning opportunity or complete and utter disaster.
At least that’s what Milwaukee mom of four, Angel Gonzales, says. In a time when some schools are cutting recess and other creative programs like art, Gonzales says these things couldn’t be more important. “I personally feel recess is vital for a child’s development, not only socially but for learning too,” she says. “They have so much energy, but if recess were omitted, where does it go? It’s still there, but instead of being used for imaginative play, running it out or screaming like a wild person on the playground, it’s bottled up and comes out as being disobedient, resistant to learning and uncooperative.”
Instead, Gonzales says kids should be given plenty of opportunity to simply be kids, but also to learn how to interact with others. “(Recess) also allows for learning appropriateness amongst your peers,” she says. “Kids overstep their boundaries over and over, not because they're hell-raisers but because they're inquisitive and want to know when too much is exactly that.”
The power of play
The local chapter ofPlayworks makes it their mission to help foster those inquisitive little minds while seeking to improve the overall health and well-being of children through play.
“We believe in the power of play and its ability to bring out the best in every child,” explains Deborah Lukovich, executive director for Playworks Wisconsin, which is based in Milwaukee. "What we do is improve the health and well-being of children through play in a way that contributes to social, emotional and physical well-being, each of which contribute to so much in life."
The local chapter of the national organization is in its sixth year in Wisconsin, and in that time has worked with 115 elementary schools. Most are Milwaukee Public Schools, but Lukovich says it’s a personal and professional goal of hers to get into as many schools as possible.
"It's about enhancing the culture both in and outside the classroom, supporting overall wellness of students while supporting trauma-informed teaching and violence prevention," she says.
The program, which integrates with curriculum and incorporates training elements for districts, is built around a common language between Playworks professionals, teachers and district administrators around how play contributes to the social, emotional and physical well-being of children.
Setting kids up for success
“We start on the playground, setting it up so children experience opportunities to make successful choices, and, when there is conflict, they know the tools they can use to resolve the issues,” Lukovich says. “It’s really about safety, engagement and empowerment. We want to arrange the playground in a way where they know where what types of games are being played, have the confidence they need to be included.”
One of the biggest contributors to conflicts on playgrounds is not understanding the rules, so Lukovich says making sure every child understands the rules of each game is one of the first steps they take.
“Play is a more embodied form of learning,” Lukovich explains. “There is quantitative science to support that just sitting all the time is detrimental...moving around and being physically active helps enhance your cognitive abilities and sets you up to be more successful adults.”
Getting artsy on the playground
The relationship between getting up and moving and increased brain activity (and thus creativity) is one reason Artists Working in Education (AWE) sets up shop in playgrounds during the summer months.
AWE is a Milwaukee-based arts enrichment program that seeks to provide area youth with ample opportunities to weave arts and culture into community development.
“We teach kids to open up imaginations and allow them to be creative by working together with other kids,” explains Raina Johnson, donor stewardship director and storytelling manager for AWE. “A lot of the students we work with don’t have arts programs in their schools, so we step in to help them foster that creativity.”
AWE’struck studio programs partner with Milwaukee County Parks, Milwaukee Recreation and the Milwaukee Public Library to provide arts activities in area parks, playgrounds and libraries. In the summer, trucks visit sites throughout Milwaukee to offer three hours of free arts enrichment activities daily, during which artists work with children to create take-home projects.
In addition to the truck studio programs, AWE’sArtist in Residence programs help engage youth in making decisions about land use, public space and neighborhood revitalization through the creation of public art in neighborhoods.
The programs touch the lives of more than 6,000 students in a year, Johnson says, all through integrating art and play. “What I think really sets our programs apart is the kids are at the parks already, so we’re meeting them where they are and providing a chance to make art in a fun, safe environment for youth who might not otherwise have access to do so.”
Nurturing creativity through play
Johnson’s point about providing kids needed access to art is especially relevant in this day and age, as, like recess, art classes have been on the chopping block in many schools.
Terra Chmielewski, who is in her 20th year as an art teacher with the School District of Menomonee Falls, is an advocate for the necessary role of the arts in bringing play to life.
“The creativity art fosters helps with the growth of brain cells that facilitate crucial skills, like problem solving,” says Chmielewski, who is also the district art department manager and high school curriculum manager. "A lot of jobs want students to have experience and the desire to be creative because it's all too easy to forget about the element creative thinking plays in almost any career."
Being book smart obviously has its fair share of advantages, but Chmielewski says adding creativity to the mix helps foster success in the future.
“Art is play time. It’s a time to experiment and have fun without having to be afraid of what someone might say about any of it. It’s about thinking outside the box. The sky is not always blue, sometimes there are yellows and purples. Kids need to have options to help them gain confidence to do other things.”
That’s certainly the case for Menomonee Falls High School junior, Hanna Milos, who says she believes learning through play empowers dreamers to make their ideas a reality.
“To innovate means to get dirty, make mistakes and experiment until you find what works,” she says. “Art has inspired me to not just think outside the box, but to live outside the box...it’s taught me to put myself out there and be different, as well as to not care what others think.”
Curiosity is there. Imaginations abound. It’s what we do with it that makes the difference. Whether that happens in an organized playground setting, in a park or library or under the blue (and purple and yellow) sky, learning through play is an easy way to put those childhood wiggles and endless energy bursts toward something positive.
Not only for today, but for tomorrow as well.
Ty Schmidt is a freelance writer and mom of two boys.